Yucca Mountain won’t lessen risks

Richard Bryan is a former Nevada state assemblyman, attorney general, governor, and U.S. senator. He is currently chairman of the Nevada Commission on Nuclear Projects.

Nuclear industry spokespeople and some in Congress have been very of late suggesting that the nuclear accident in Japan requires restarting the defunct Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository program. They assert that moving spent fuel to a Nevada repository is needed to eliminate or reduce the risks associated with failures of spent fuel cooling pools at U.S. nuclear power plants. The refrain one hears is that it’s safer to move spent fuel out of these cooling pools at 100-plus reactor sites to a single, isolated location in Nevada.

The problem with this assertion is that it’s entirely wrong and misleading. There could be 100 Yucca Mountains up and operating, and the risks involved with spent fuel pools at reactor sites would still be there. Wherever there is a nuclear reactor, there must be a water-filled pool to cool the spent fuel for five years or more after it’s removed from the reactor. Whether there is a repository at Yucca Mountain or anywhere else will have no effect on spent fuel pool risks. The only way to avoid this risk would be to shut down all the reactors.

Fortunately, the answer to minimizing risks posed by cooling pools is simple and straightforward. Utility companies that operate nuclear power plants should be required do what many already do—move spent fuel that is more than five years old and is capable of being taken out of the cooling pool to safe, passive dry storage at reactor sites. This virtually eliminates any chance that the spent fuel will overheat due to water leaks in the pool or cooling system malfunctions.

Dry storage is 100 percent passive, relies on natural air circulation to cool the fuel, and requires no moving parts and no active monitoring. Containers are large stainless steel cylinders placed in steel and concrete overpacks or vaults. They are lined up on concrete pads within the security perimeters of the reactor sites. Pads can even be recessed into the ground for added security. Dry storage virtually eliminates risks of the type we are seeing in Japan, where spent fuel is burning due to overheating. And unlike a repository—at Yucca Mountain or elsewhere—dry storage can be done immediately, as opposed to waiting decades before a disposal or storage location could be ready.

So why haven’t U.S. utility companies already maximized the use of dry storage at reactor sites? Again, the answer seems relatively simple, and it’s a four-letter word: C-O-S-T. Regardless of the risks, it’s cheaper for utilities to maintain the status quo, loading more and more spent fuel into pools and keeping it there longer than necessary because it’s less expensive to do it that way.

Instead of disingenuously using the disaster in Japan in an attempt to stampede Congress into restarting the failed Yucca project, the nuclear industry should be using its considerable influence to require utility companies to make maximum use of dry storage technologies.