Japan and Yucca

The Japanese nuclear crisis has revived debate in the United States over nuclear waste storage. The House energy committee has opened an investigation into the Obama administration decision to halt development of a Nevada dump at Yucca Mountain. CBS did two reports on whether politics has played a role in the Yucca Mountain saga. Neither of those CBS reports even mentioned that Congress in 1987 scuttled the scientific study of three finalist sites, eliminating two sites in the home states of the then-vice president of the United States (George Bush) and the then-speaker of the House (Tom Foley). Instead, CBS limited its scrutiny to the Obama administration.

Some of the discussion has been pretty routine, but some has been more interesting. Samples:

Science fiction writer and physicist David Brin: Clearly, the disaster in Japan shows us that the used fuel rods that spend five years cooling down in pools next to today’s light-water nuclear reactors are more dangerous than most of us were led to believe. Hence, it is time to re-open the matter of Yucca Mountain…. I am 99 percent certain that the canisters stored in Yucca Mountain won’t have to last 10,000 years! They will be withdrawn in less than a century, like deposits in a bank! By descendants who are far more advanced than us and who see those rare elements as unmatched resources for fabulous projects! … Promise the State of Nevada a 5 percent royalty on anything ever withdrawn from the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Resource Bank and Reserve.

Adam R. Gold/Harvard Crimson: Early nuclear scientists were optimistic that breakthroughs would help us permanently seal radioactive substances or render them inert. Some of the radioactive waste product can be re-used safely, and this process is carried out in Japan and France, but it is not cost-effective and only reduces the volume of the waste by a finite amount. Studies have also been done on reactors that transmute nuclear waste into less harmful by-products. Yet it is still unclear whether we will be able to sanitize waste products completely.

Richard Brill/Honolulu Star-Advertiser: In 1987 Congress selected Yucca Mountain in Nevada as the only site to be investigated as the potential geologic repository for U.S. spent nuclear fuel and high-level nuclear waste. It condemned the United States to pursue a policy that had no backup if Yucca Mountain failed politically or technically. And politically fail it did. Recent action to shelve Yucca Mountain leaves no specific site in the plans and reconvenes the need for exploring alternatives.

U.S. Rep. John Shimkus: I can see three to five new nuclear plants moving forward, given the current regulatory environment. I cannot see, though I would like to, a larger increase in nuclear power until we establish a design standard for new plants—and deal with the long-term storage of nuclear waste. [Shimkus represents Illinois, which has 11 nuclear power plants at six sites and four plants at three sites that are being decommissioned.]

Eileen O’Grady/Reuters: Community officials in southeast New Mexico want to expand a nuclear-waste storage facility deep inside an ancient salt bed to play a bigger role in handling spent fuel from U.S. reactors, a problem now under the spotlight due to the Japanese nuclear crisis. [The New Mexico site is designated for military waste only.]

Japan Times: Even if the [Yucca] project is reactivated, it will take at least 10 years before the facility starts accepting atomic waste. Meanwhile, the amount of spent fuel in the United States is already greater than the planned storage capacity at Yucca Mountain. Japan, too, has struggled to confirm a site for underground storage because of its vulnerability to earthquakes. There is also a deeper question to be settled by governments: Should secure underground storage be permanent or just long-term, in case future nuclear technologies can turn the spent fuel into a valuable new source of energy? Used reactor fuel still contains much of its original uranium and over half its original energy content. Beyond this is another question that concerns countries that decide to develop relatively small-scale nuclear power programs, but do not want to be saddled with the costs and responsibilities of long-term waste storage.