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Why Not Yucca Mountain?

2010_3_3 That question reverberated through a couple of hearings about the  Department of Energy’s 2011 budget request and, up to now, has not received a very adequate answer. Energy Secretary Steven Chu has took a stab at it this week. At the House Science and Natural Resources committee yesterday and at the Senate Appropriate Committee’s Energy and Water subcommittee today, Chu faced some pretty insistent questions on this issue. We admit that we’re as curious as anyone on this.

We found that this exchange between Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Chu got to the heart of the argument and gave Chu enough room for a full answer (our transcript):

Sen. Patty Murray: Who was consulted in making the decision that Yucca Mountain is no longer a viable option?

Steven Chu: One has to go back and look at the entire history of the choice of Yucca Mountain, the Nuclear Waste Act, all those things. What one finds is that there are other things, other knowledge, other conditions that as they evolved made it look increasingly as not like an ideal choice.

PM: Was there scientific evidence that was used in determining this?

SC: It’s an unfolding of issues that continued, and I would be happy to talk to you about some of the issues, but the President has made it very clear that it is not an option.

PM: Was there any scientific evidence that was used?

SC: Well, let me give you one example. The conditions at Yucca Mountain changed. The Supreme Court ruling says that it is not 10,000 years, it could be up to a million years [that the repository must be certified as stable]. Then all of a sudden, that puts a new dimension on Yucca Mountain. Climate is hard to predict over a million years.

PM: For any site.

SC: Right. For any site.

PM: So why was Yucca Mountain different?

SC: There are other geological sites where we can do radioactive dating, and we know they are inherently stable. Let me give you one example. There is a salt dome site. These things have been around for tens of millions of year. The difference with the salt domes is, you stick radioactive waste in there and salt diffuses around it. Even though the continents have been drifting all around the globe, those things have been stable for tens of millions of years, up to hundreds of millions of years. That’s a very different type of site than Yucca Mountain, which has fissures and rock can be saturated with water if the climate changes.

So there you go. Even if the Blue Ribbon Commission on Used Nuclear Fuel suggests that a geologic repository is the way to go, Yucca Mountain will not suffice. Salt domes didn’t just spring to Chu’s mind. He talked about them in this interview in MIT’s Technology Review last year:

[O]ne could well imagine that for a certain classification for a certain type of waste, you don't want to have access to it anymore, so that means you could use different sites than Yucca Mountain, [such as] salt domes. Once you put it in there, the [salt] oozes around it. These are geologically stable for a 50 to 100 million year time scale. The trouble with those type of places for repositories is you don't have access to it anymore. But say for certain types of waste you don't want to have access to it anymore--that's good. It's a very natural containment.


Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga.) said at the hearing that the decision on Yucca Mountain “appears to be politically motivated, not based on science.” You can find the hearing archived here; it really should be heard rather than read – Broun’s a real firebrand and quite entertaining when the flame isn’t pointed your way.

But Broun cannot do more than surmise and we should always try to work with the data we have – Congress can always do hearings if it thinks something is fishy enough to warrant them.


Now, we should make clear that these hearings were still mostly pretty polite – Congress people looking after the interests of their districts and states and Chu defending the budget’s requests for more money for this or less money for that.

Those legislators who chose to comment on the recent conditional loan guarantee commitment to Southern Co. or on increasing the loan guarantee authority to $54 billion were supportive of both. These seem non-controversial.

And a couple of legislators even agreed that Yucca Mountain should be closed – though they said their bit fast and moved on. The ones who were annoyed at this were really annoyed.

Steven Chu at the House hearing yesterday.


Anonymous said…
This is all just tom foolery. We dumb 30 billion tons of fossil fuel waste into the air we breathe every year, and coal plants expose the public to 100 times as much radiation as nuclear plans. The amount of waste is so small-- about the size of a high school gymnasium-- we could just dump it in the rain forest where it will scare away people from chopping down forests.

Or, we could just use it to power the world for millennia. They say that there is no "silver bullet," but really there is, literally:

Amazingly, the literal "silver bullet" of modern warfare is also a "silver bullet" source of unlimited clean energy:
Sterling Archer said…
What's appalling is the 1,000,000-year requirement. Even without reprocessing that's simply a proctologist-extracted number; if we did reprocess, the number would become, what, 500 years?
Brian Mays said…
Poor Chu. He just isn't allowed come out and admit directly that it was all politics and no science that determined the administration's (illegal) policy on Yucca Mountain.

So many words, so little substance. I can summarize the entire exchange with the following excerpt:

Sen. Patty Murray: Was there scientific evidence that was used in determining [that Yucca Mountain is no longer a viable option]?

Steven Chu: ... the President has made it very clear that it is not an option.

In other words, "no."
Matt said…
5 bucks says that after Harry Reid gets thrown out of office, Yucca Mountain suddenly becomes an option again.
DocForesight said…
With the use of IFR or LFTR, what would be the need for Yucca Mountain? If the resultant "waste" is a small fraction of what would've been remaining after a once-through fuel cycle, is there still a need for a long-term repository?

Not being a nuclear scientist, I am just asking for informational purposes.

@Sterling -- I agree, given my limited understanding of radioactive waste.
Anonymous said…
Nuclear Notes is civil and low-key, as usual, in its assessment of this sad affair, but I find it difficult to be as even-tempered.

For the record, regardless of the artificiality of the 100,000,000-year compliance period, the repository as sited and designed meets the dose requirements for that period with room to spare, with an acceptable level of uncertainty (especially given the absurdity of the time frame in the first place).

Also, I was disappointed to see Chu harping on geology, as if that were the sine qua non of repository design. True, one has to look at a relatively narrow range of potential geologic media, but it will always be a matter of balancing natural and engineered barriers in any repository design.

Chu's exemplar was flow through the mountain; that is, the old argument that "we later discovered that more water flows through the mountain than expected."

So? The design has been adapted to take that fact into account. Hence Chu's other assertion (not mentioned in the blog post) that DOE was forced to come up with drip shields, which Chu for some reason characterized as either ruinously expensive or too far-fetched.

The suggestion is, if you have to add something as outlandish as a drip shield to the design, then the geology must not be very good.

This has been the familiar refrain from Yucca Mountain opponents for years. But please, a drip shield is not exactly a reactor core; it's a U-shaped piece of metal, like a carport for a waste package. Not exactly a stretch design-wise.

And even if one finds Chu's implied argument for a repository in salt (look out, New Mexico!) in any way compelling, a whole host of issues will erupt around that design, as happened with WIPP. (People will cry "salt creep!" or a large brine deposit will be found or there will be too many thermal complexities, etc.)

This is just more kicking the can down the road, or kicking it onto another road that will have different potholes but potholes nonetheless. The point is, we've already been through this, in the process that led up to selection of Yucca Mountain as the proposed repository site. Had things turned out differently (e.g., Deaf Smith or Hanford), you can be sure that we'd be in a similar place and hearing the same arguments about an alleged inadequacy of the chosen site, all without any documented basis in science.

Very disappointing indeed.

And I would note, finally, that the word I must type into the word verification for this blog post is (no joking)...

Why throw away good spent fuel that could be utilized to create more clean fuel? Spent fuel is a tiny problem.
Why throw away spent fuel? Recycle into more clean nuclear fuel. Spent fuel is a tiny problem.
Brian Mays said…
Then, Marcel, Secretary Chu's words should cause you some alarm.

By law, anything placed in Yucca Mountain must be fully recoverable, for at least 50 years, perhaps for a century or more. Thus, if you later want to recycle any thrown-away spent fuel, it can be done fairly easily.

But if it goes into a salt dome, it's soon unrecoverable. Disposal into a salt dome would kill any future possibility of recycling the material.
Anonymous said…

Listen to Secretary Chu's testimony. He specifically says only residual materials that would have no potential future economic value should go into permanent disposal. It's the current statute that says that 63,000 tons of used fuel should be put into a geologic repository. Chu wants this antiquated law changed, and that's what he's asked the Blue Ribbon Commission to aim its recommendations at.
Brian Mays said…
Sorry, Anonymous, but you don't know what you're talking about.

Nothing in the law about Yucca Mountain (the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982) prohibits the recycling of spent nuclear fuel. By the time that Yucca Mountain was chosen to be the geological repository for the US, President Reagan had ended the Carter-era ban on reprocessing. The two have nothing to do with each other.

Chu is trying to have it both ways. He complains that a geological repository must be stable for "up to a million years" because of the long-lived radioactive waste, but then he talks of only disposing of waste with "no economical" value, because (according to Chu) we're going "to burn down the long-lived actinide waste."

Well, if you've removed the long-lived actinides from the waste, then you've just eliminated Chu's biggest argument against Yucca Mountain: that it must be stable for "up to a million years"! The lack of coherent logic in his statements and interviews is truly mind numbing.

Frankly, I feel sorry for Chu. It must be terribly disheartening to be an apologist for an administration that so flagrantly puts politics above science.
Anonymous said…
Brian, your pathos for Chu's dilemma is probably justified. Here is a guy who claims to still be a scientist yet he is selling himself at the behest of his political masters. There is a word for that but Nuclear Notes is too polite a forum to use it.

Last I checked, the NWPA is still the law of the land. I don't understand why someone "with standing" could not challenge the Administration's decision to trash Yucca Mountain. It wouldn't go anywhere since the DOJ would have to be involved and they are as corrupt as any in this sorry Administration, but at least it would shine some publicity on a blatant violation of federal law.

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