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Yucca Mountain: “What if the answer were ‘maybe?’”

YUCCAThe ongoing discussion on used nuclear fuel has taken a number of twists and turns over the years, with interest in consolidated storage facilities growing – and Waste Control Specialists in Texas offering to provide such a facility – and and a permanent repository, such as was the purpose behind the Yucca Mountain project. It’s not an either/or proposition – the first collects used fuel from military and domestic sites – where it is safe as is – and the second will be its final resting place. Consolidation is the right word for the goal – it reduces the number of sites holding used fuel, over time, from many to some to one. It’s been a vexing issue, but not impossible.

Nevada’s Yucca Mountain holds a special place in the conversation because the Nuclear Waste Policy Act specifies it as the permanent repository and because the project was progressing apace until President Barack Obama closed it down soon after his first election. This fulfilled a campaign promise he made during a Nevada primary debate in 2008, but ending the project has always met resistance in Congress. One rarely listens to a Congressional hearing on used fuel – or any hearing about nuclear energy - without at least a mention of Yucca Mountain.

When the Nuclear Regulatory Commission completed the safety evaluation on Yucca Mountain earlier this year - under court order - it concluded that the repository will be capable of safely isolating used nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste for the million-year period specified in the regulations. So interest in Yucca Mountain rose even higher.

Now, Nevada’s congressional delegation has always been resolute that Yucca Mountain should never open. Might that be wavering? Here is Rep. Cresent Hardy (R-Nevada) in the Las Vegas Review-Journal:

When was the last time someone from the Department of Energy or the White House asked the most basic of questions: Is there a scenario in which Nevadans would actually welcome nuclear waste storage at Yucca Mountain, northwest of Las Vegas?

The answer to that question may, of course, be that no such scenario exists. In that case, perhaps another state would like to be considered, and I will be the first in line to fight for the will of my constituents.

But what if the answer were “maybe”? What if a permanent investment were made in Nevada schools — the kind of investment that could take us from the bottom 10 percent to the top 10 percent?

Hardy is being exceptionally careful here, but you can’t blame him. Opposing Yucca Mountain has been almost an article of faith for Nevada politicians of all stripes. Hardy’s district includes Yucca Mountain.

The paper’s editorial board answered Hardy’s ideas directly – and is open to them, a big change:

First, Nevada leaders can stop the alarmism. Decades of politically expedient doomsday predictions have served no productive purpose and instead risked becoming self-fulfilling prophecies. Nuclear waste is not a hypothetical material. It not only exists, it’s being stored safely in all kinds of environments. And Nevada’s nuclear proving grounds are isolated, unfit for productive use and secure.

Then federal officials can stop pretending that science has any meaningful role in determining whether a site is suitable for nuclear waste storage. This is a political calculation, and nothing more.

The second paragraph shows the hurt that Yucca Mountain has caused – and I mean emotional hurt. It’s also wrong: the science surrounding Yucca Mountain is key and essentially settled – but if you’re hurting, that can be hard to accept. Even with all that, the paper recognizes that Nevada stands to benefit. It might be in a highly sarcastic tone – and very, very bitter - but there it is.

To be fair, here’s an article in the Las Vegas Sun, also responding to Hardy’s op-ed, on the state of play in Nevada. Just a taste:

Nevada's Democratic leaders and ardent Yucca opponents responded predictably.

Taste enough?

The nuclear industry has interest in this debate to the extent that the federal government live up to its obligation to develop a solution for used nuclear fuel. That’s what the Nuclear Waste Policy Act is all about and that’s what the industry has poured billions of dollars into the Nuclear Waste Fund to achieve.  It’s very interesting that Nevada might be ever so slightly open to reactivating the Yucca Mountain project, but, really, any solution that is safe will do. Interesting days ahead.


I really don't believe in the philosophy of throwing away spent fuel-- forever-- since it has a value that has been estimated to be worth over $100 trillion in clean electricity production in next generation reactors.

Temporary (up to 100 years) Federal storage sites on Federal lands is the near term solution, IMO, until we are, finally, ready to reprocess and utilize spent fuel in next generation reactors.

SteveK9 said…
I would not vote to spend a penny to bribe Nevada. Spent fuel is safe and lots of places would volunteer to make a living storing it. If Nevadans are too ignorant to realize this (perhaps that is an outcome of the bottom 10% in education), then so be it. I know we have wasted a lot of money already on this, but the idea of paying them off is repugnant.
Joffan said…
I don't think I would characterize the pre-Obama activity as "the project was progressing apace". It was already 9 years beyond its intended opening date at the time of the 2008 elections.

Anonymous said…
We as an industry need to lobby for reprocessing and then the repository debate becomes a non-issue.
Jack said…
A long term view might result in Nevadan leaders realizing that they are missing out on what might be a huge opportunity – what if the answer was resounding 'Yes?'.
Except for a portion of the nuclear waste, there will be no final resting place. Transmutation, to reduce half lives of a large amount of the waste to just generational time frames, will be the next step, but it is not yet a viable option.
Technology does advance, and that means that commercially viable particle accelerators, driven by suitably powerful, compact and low maintenance lasers, will be available, probably in less than ten years. The accelerator technology is already proven - all that is now needed is practical laser technology.
If Nevada becomes the main storage location, it will then likely become the prime center, perhaps internationally, for hazard reduction operations. That's an opportunity that should not be bypassed by politicians.

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