Yucca-ed up

A plan to permanently store nuclear waste in Nevada is dead. No, it’s alive. No, it’s a ‘non-starter.’ No, it’s still viable. What’s a confused Nevadan to think?

The Empire Farms geothermal plant takes 250-degree water from its garlic-dehydrating operation and uses it to generate electricity.

The Empire Farms geothermal plant takes 250-degree water from its garlic-dehydrating operation and uses it to generate electricity.

Photo by Debra Reid

Think about spent nuclear fuel rods, plumb full of plutonium 239, thrust deep into Nevada’s rocky mountain orifices.

Think about radioactive waste mellowing in casks like fine wine, only this deadly brew has a half-life of 20,000 years.

Think about radiation escaping from its tomb by clinging to particles of clay or drops of moisture that leak out through crevices in the rock, finally seeping into the ground water.

Senate leaders say it won’t happen. Nuclear waste won’t be sent to its final resting place in Nevada’s Yucca Mountain—the only site being considered for a permanent nuke dump in the United States.

But our country’s fearless executive branch still seems in a big hurry to give toxic goo a mighty send-off from its current homes, in the cooling ponds of nuclear power plants across the nation, to Nevada. President Bush’s new national energy plan—stoked with the fuel from a few pro-nuke fossils—called, among other things, for more nuclear power plants.

“But wait … “ some stuttered in astonishment. “We can’t even find a place to put the killer nuclear leftovers cooked up in the plants we already have.”

Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and company were nonplussed by this criticism, leading some to speculate that a presidential endorsement of a permanent waste repository site may be near. Surprise, surprise, surprise, our federal government will say. Completely unbiased science proves that Nevada’s Yucca Mountain is a cool spot to keep the nation’s hot stuff.

In May, CNN went to Yucca, explaining to viewers that the mountain would almost certainly become the nation’s first high-level nuclear waste repository. Cheney told Tim Russert of Meet the Press that it’s high time to make the waste disposal decision: “It’ll have to be put someplace.”

For nearly two decades, the only “someplace” in the works has been Nevada. Diverse interests have shot down all other possible solutions to the nuclear waste problem. While Nevada may or may not be the best place for nuclear waste, it has traditionally been the politically weakest.

But wait, you say. Nevadans have been crying wolf over nuclear waste for years. And now, with Sen. Harry Reid as the majority whip—the most powerful national position a Nevadan has ever had—brandishing some clout in Congress, there’s no need to worry. There’s nothing Bush and Cheney could really do to get waste on its merry way here. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said so to reporters during a visit to Las Vegas last week: “The Yucca Mountain issue is dead. As long as we’re in the majority, it’s dead.”

So we’re safe.


Nuclear needs
It could happen this year. The Department of Energy is expected make a decision, most likely recommending Yucca Mountain as the nation’s nuke dump. If Nevada lodges a complaint against the DOE’s recommendation—and it’s safe to say we will—the matter goes to Congress. If approved, waste shipments could begin in eight to 10 years.

So, Sen. Reid, the national media is talking about Yucca as if it’s going to open for business soon. Are Nevadans in denial?

“They’ve been saying that since 1982,” Reid said. “We’re no closer now than we were then.”

Bush’s plan to encourage more new nuclear power plants is a “non-starter,” Reid said. “They have to do something with the waste, but Yucca Mountain is going to cost $58 billion.”

He paused reflectively.

“That’s really a lot of money,” he said.

I talked to Reid on a shuttle bus during a tour of Empire Farms’ small geothermal power plant and dehydration facility. Empire grows garlic and onions near the Black Rock Desert, in northern Washoe County near Gerlach. Using 300-degree water pumped from hot springs in the area, workers dehydrate the produce and sell it to spice companies. Then they take the water, now 250 degrees, and use it to generate electricity for the plant. Most of the lukewarm water is pumped back into the ground. Some water flows into ponds with a thick, green scum, creating a mini-wetland in the desert.

Reid was optimistic about the future of renewable energy sources, pledging to work for more federal funding.

But he wasn’t pleased with the Bush administration’s energy plan, written by Cheney and introduced in mid-May. The plan gives a nod to conservation, but it emphasizes production: more fossil fuel-consuming power plants, more nuclear power, more oil refineries and more drilling for oil and natural gas in places like Alaska’s Arctic wilderness, the Rockies and along the U.S. coast. Federal spending for the development of renewable energy sources was nearly cut in half.

And, oh yeah, the plan also called for a permanent nuclear waste dump. After all, the nation’s nuke zones are filling up. A nuclear power plant at Prairie Island, Minn., will use up all its temporary storage by 2007. It will have to close down then, unless a permanent dump can take the nasty mess off its hands.

Since nuclear plants provide about a fifth of the nation’s power, if they are forced to close, it could exacerbate whatever energy problems we are purported to have.

“If we fail to act, this country could face a dark future,” Bush warned reporters.

While that may be true, Reid said that more production isn’t going to solve the nation’s problem. He prefers melding conservation and the expanded use of clean, renewable energy sources.

“The president’s plan is pretty bad,” he said. “Cheney belittles conservation, belittles renewables, and I think that’s really missing the boat. There’s no question that people believe [the administration is] wed to big oil. The things they belittle are things we have to do.”

U.S. Sen. Harry Reid (left), shown with Empire Farms owner Mike Stewart, wishes the president would look to develop the “power that’s right under our feet,” like geothermal power, instead of thinking nuke.

Photo by Debra Reid

Shifting attitudes
We have short memories. People weren’t exactly electrified about nuclear power after a toxic mishap at Three Mile Island, near Harrisburg, Pa. And the 1986 Russian disaster at Chernobyl set off a chain reaction of near-fatal proportions to the public relations arm of the nuclear power industry.

But the nuke dudes were patient. The public cooled down. The nation’s outrage had a half-life of about 15 years, it turned out.

A media poll taken in April showed that only three out of 10 people were opposed to nuclear power. The number of individuals who think that nuclear reactors are just dandy is rising, and 56 percent of those who approved of nuke plants told Associated Press pollsters that they wouldn’t mind a nuclear plant within 10 miles of their home.

The Nuclear Energy Institute has also launched a $2 million ad campaign to promote nuclear energy as “clean” energy.

“There’s no question that signs of enthusiasm are coming back,” said Chauncey Starr, a nuke plant pioneer, to a reporter from the Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service.

And everything the nuclear power industry could wish for is in Bush’s plan, including a request to speed up the approval of new nuclear power technology and re-licensing of existing plants; money to look at thriftily reusing spent fuel; federally guaranteed insurance to cover catastrophic nuclear plant accidents; and, once again, that permanent graveyard for radioactive rods.

“Probably Yucca Mountain in Nevada,” the Knight-Ridder story noted.

The fact that nuclear power would end up being a viable facet of Bush’s energy plan isn’t surprising. The advisers Bush assembled in January to counsel him on energy issues included several nuclear-power industry leaders, reported the Las Vegas Sun in January.

Presidential advisers included Joe Colvin, the CEO of the nuclear power industry’s big-spending lobby group, the Nuclear Energy Institute. Four energy advisory team members had raised at least $100,000 for Bush’s campaign, like Ken Lay of Enron Corp. and James Langdon, a lobbyist whose firm works for nuclear power companies.

Also invited to the idea table was J. Bennett Johnston, a former Louisiana senator and the first man to impregnate Congress with the idea that Nevada was built to bear nuclear waste. (Remember Johnston’s name. We’ll come back to him.)

Not invited to Bush and Cheney’s energy brainstorm: anti-nuke activists, environmentalists or anyone even remotely opposed to burying waste at Yucca.

Screw Nevada
Nuclear fission seemed like a magic way to create endless amounts of power. In a nuclear reactor, a chain reaction of atomic activity in uranium heats water into steam that propels an electric generator. But the uranium is atomically altered–split apart at the electrons. That leaves behind a bunch of radioactive material, including strontium 90, cesium 137 and plutonium 239, the latter of which could be chemically separated and used to make fuel for other types of power reactors. When the nation’s first nuclear power plants were proposed in the 1950s and 1960s, this kind of recycling was part of the plan.

In 1982, U.S. lawmakers came up with the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. The law outlined the process by which a site for permanent nuclear waste storage would be selected. The choice would be made objectively, based on science. The federal government would study three sites in the Eastern United States and three sites in the West. After studies at these six sites, the two best sites would be selected.

The goal, in 1982, was storage at regional facilities where technicians would reprocess nuclear fuel, said the bill’s principal author, W. Kenneth Davis, the Energy Department undersecretary from 1981 to 1983. Davis, now a California resident, recently wrote a letter to the Bush administration asking for the abandonment of the Yucca project.

“In my opinion, [Yucca] should be put in mothballs,” Davis said in a Las Vegas Sun story.

After the 1982 act passed, the outraged citizens of each state under consideration were freaked at the idea of waste in their own back barrio. Lawsuits ensued.

By 1986, President Reagan had picked three Western sites for consideration: Hanford, Wash.; Deaf Smith County, Texas; and Yucca Mountain. No Eastern sites were selected. Investigations ensued. Some members of Congress charged the DOE with canceling the eastern repository plans to help the region’s Republican senatorial candidates in the 1986 elections.

Washington and Texas had enough political clout to get out of the game before any experimental shafts were sunk into their terra firma. And in 1987, Congress amended the Nuclear Waste Policy Act so that Nevada became the nation’s only possible storage site.

The 1987 amendment was the brainchild of the senator who then chaired the Energy Committee and the Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water, Sen. J. Bennett Johnston—one of Dubya’s aforementioned esteemed energy advisers. Johnston convinced Congress that they should put all their glowing eggs in one basket. He even proposed giving the host state money ($100 million at first; $20 million later). Then the state would be begging for waste, welcoming it into its inner sanctums by the cask-full. He didn’t actually say that Nevada would be the lucky state. He didn’t have to.

“While Johnston named no names, everyone knew that when the music stopped, the state without a chair would be Nevada,” wrote Joseph Davis, a Congressional Quarterly reporter, in Sierra magazine.

“The process was short-circuited,” said John Hadder, the Northern Nevada coordinator for Citizen Alert. “They hadn’t fully looked at other sites. It was politically motivated.”

So the federal government ended up with Yucca Mountain or nothing.

“What a ridiculous situation to be in,” Hadder said. “Now they’re in the hot seat, but they put themselves there. No options—who does that? Even on a personal level. How many times have you gotten in trouble because you didn’t leave yourself any options?”

Yucca for newbies
Nuclear waste isn’t a problem that this state helped to create. Nevada has no nuclear power plants. But that’s not as troubling as the lack of scientific confidence that Yucca might be an acceptable spot for this kind of dump.

“The site has a lot of unstable geology, and it’s seismically active,” Hadder said. “It seems like you’d rather choose a site that’s not active. You can’t build a nuclear plant on an active site.”

Water is another big problem. The DOE originally thought the site seemed dry enough, but after thorough studies, it seems pretty clear that leaks will occur.

“So now the DOE is making arrangements to handle water coming through,” Hadder said. “Waste will get into ground water. It’s just a matter of when.”

George W. Bush’s energy plan has pushed nuclear power over renewable energies, such geothermal power. This does not bode well for Nevada.

Photo by Debra Reid

And “when” is a matter of computer-modeled guesswork, using variables that are, at best, pretty sketchy. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission last week wrote a letter detailing eight errors discovered during a review of the DOE’s computer models and hand calculations of chemical reactions inside the nuclear waste packages. Radiation doses in cases of leakage were underestimated. The durability of the waste packages was overestimated.

And then there’s the heat. Yucca gets hot to begin with. So does nuclear waste. What will the combined extremely high temperatures do to the mountain? Hard to say. Some scientists say the heat is good; it will keep the rock dry. Others say cool conditions are optimal for hot waste.

What will heat and corrosive elements do to the metal casks designed to contain waste for 10,000 years? DOE scientists observed stress cracks in the metal, a C-22 alloy, after it was exposed to boiling hot water that came from a well near Yucca Mountain and contained lead, arsenic and mercury. In September, scientists hired by the state of Nevada did a similar experiment and found that the metal alloy corroded in the same hot water after only 14 days, reported Mary Manning of the Las Vegas Sun.

Uncertainty seems the biggest obstacle to Yucca. No one really knows what will happen to nuclear waste as it ages. No one really knows how to store it so that radiation doesn’t make its way out onto the Las Vegas strip. No one knows exactly what kind of damage a small accident might cause, let alone a big one.

“There are a lot of issues,” Hadder said. “We’ve never done this before.”

One final impressive set of numbers:

The accident at Three-Mile Island emitted 15 curies of a short-lived radioactive iodine. That was considered a major disaster. By comparison, the shafts in Yucca’s guts would be home to 3 billion curies of radiation, most of it emitted from plutonium, which is not short-lived. In fact, it takes 20,000 years for plutonium’s radiation to be reduced by half.

And remember that tiny part of Bush’s plan that calls for federal insurance in case of nuclear catastrophe? If something happens at Yucca—and we all live through it—it’s not hard to guess who’s going to pay to clean it up.

Back at the ranch
After touring Empire Energy’s geothermal plant, politicians, workers and the media piled into a helicopter. Several men wore Empire Energy baseball caps—"3.6 Megawatts and Growing!”

Our next stop was Granite Ranch, northwest of Gerlach, the site of a proposed 2,000-megawatt power plant, with power generated from a combination of geothermal, solar and wind, along with traditional methods. An artist’s conception of the project shows transmission lines from the facility to both the Alturas line and even to a Los Angeles Department of Water & Power line.

In this green valley not far from the Black Rock Desert, Reid talked about his support for renewable energy programs.

“As we speak, huge tankers are heading across the ocean bringing us oil,” he said. “We’re using 22 million barrels a day, and it’s not becoming less, it’s becoming more. We need to do something about it. We can’t produce our way out of this problem.”

By conservation methods that already exist, the nation could cut energy use by 49 percent, Reid said. He also promised support for legislation that would invest big bucks in renewables, especially for use in rural parts of the country.

“We have a lot of energy potential that doesn’t focus on fossil fuels,” he said. “Nevada is the most naturally prone state for geothermal. That hot water—it’s power that’s right under our feet.”

Nuke goo renewed
If the federal government has $58 billion to spend researching and testing nuclear waste storage at Yucca, it should instead spend those funds researching transmutation—a treatment that would render the material less radioactive—and reprocessing of the toxic leftovers, said U.S. Congresswoman Shelley Berkley, the Las Vegas-area representative. So this week, Berkley planned to introduce legislation to divert $445 million from the DOE’s Nuclear Trust Fund for Yucca projects to research and development of these divergent technologies.

“We know transmutation is possible, and reprocessing already exists in parts of Europe—France comes to mind,” Berkley said. “There’s no reason we shouldn’t be spending the money on this instead of on a big hole in the ground.”

Her statement called to mind Cheney’s much-publicized reference to France as a place that handles waste “very safely in an environmentally sound, sane manner.” Cheney used this as an argument for a permanent repository.

Media reports outside of Nevada that refer to Yucca as “probably” a done deal worry Berkley, as does Bush’s energy policy.

“It’s unbelievably scary, short-sighted and unnecessary,” she said. “And to propose an energy policy for this nation that relies on an increase in fossil fuels and nuclear power is the height of irresponsibility. Why not put that money into renewables? Nevada could be the epicenter for research and development of solar, wind, geothermal. It should be.”

The power of the Prez
Presidential policies can set the tone for the nation. Bush and Cheney’s energy plan includes a chart that shows energy demand going up and up. But demand doesn’t have to increase. We could change.

Some changes are as simple as building houses in a good position to take advantage of the sun. This kind of passive solar design could, in Nevada, cut heating costs in winter by an easy 30 percent, Hadder said. But someone needs to lead the way.

During the 1970s, Hadder said, an “energy crisis” with slightly different dynamics sparked President Jimmy Carter to ask American car manufacturers to design a car that got better mileage.

“As a result, the American car companies got a small car out,” Hadder said. “A number of programs started then around renewables and conservation that have been cut back since then. But we have some good work that’s been done.”

In fact, even today’s nuclear waste problem can be in part traced back to a presidential decision in the 1950s. A group looked at the ups and downs of nuclear energy and renewables and told President Harry Truman that nuclear power was probably a non-starter.

“They said it was too costly,” Hadder said. “They said there was a potential for catastrophic accidents. And they also encouraged renewables. Had they taken that up 40 years ago, we wouldn’t have these problems today, in my opinion.”

It takes a long time, but renewables do end up paying for themselves. It’s all just a matter of what the government wants to invest in.

“Nuclear has never paid for itself,” Hadder said. “And with the nuclear waste we have now, the cost gets bigger and bigger.

“Yes, renewables are more expensive—because we haven’t tried to make them work. It requires motivation from the top."