“We don’t need Yucca Mountain”

In a September 2005 online interview, Nobel Prize (in physics) winner Steven Chu, director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (and now Barack Obama’s choice for energy secretary) had this to say in response to questions about the “need” for more energy:

“And then there’s the waste problem—with future nuclear power plants, we’ve got to recycle the waste. Why? Because if you take all the waste we have now from our civilian and military nuclear operations, we’d fill up Yucca Mountain. So we need three or four Yucca Mountains. Well, we don’t have three or four Yucca Mountains. The other thing is that storing the fuel at Yucca Mountain is supposed to be safe for 10,000 years. But the current best estimates—and these are really estimates, the Lab’s in fact—is that the metal casings [containing the waste] will probably fail on a scale of 5,000 years, plus or minus two. That’s still a long time, and then after that the idea was that the very dense rock, very far away from the water table will contain it, so that by the time it finally leaks down to the water table and gets out the radioactivity will have mostly decayed.

“Suppose instead that we can reduce the lifetime of the radioactive waste by a factor of 1,000. So it goes from a couple-hundred-thousand-year problem to a thousand-year problem. At a thousand years, even though that’s still a long time, it’s in the realm that we can monitor—we don’t need Yucca Mountain.”