Currently, nuclear waste
is being stored at 77 different sites
in the United States, mostly on the sites of power plants
in concrete pools
. This is unacceptable
as a long-term solution, for economic
, and safety
reasons. The foremost problem
with the use of nuclear power is the radioactive
matter it leaves as a waste
product. Although the mass of the spent nuclear fuel
is much less than the mass of the pollution
emitted by plants using coal
or natural gas
, radioactive waste is usually kept in solid
form, and thus cannot be easily dispersed
in the atmosphere. Nuclear facilities must physically transport their waste to a disposal
area. Coming up with a long-term solution to this waste disposal problem would greatly increase the continued feasibility
of nuclear power
as a clean and productive alternative to other methods of power
Scientists began to look for this long-term solution in the 1950's. Many unique alternatives were explored. These included burying waste under the ocean and in polar ice sheets, encasing the waste in extremely deep holes drilled into the ground, injecting liquid waste into underground rock that would subsequently melt, rocketing the waste into space, and transmuting the waste into a different form. All of these methods, however, have serious problems, mostly having to do with safety. The majority of experts agreed then, as they do now, that the best method for disposing of high-level radioactive waste was "deep geologic disposal." Deep geologic disposal consists of storing the waste in an underground facility called a repository.
The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 charged the Department of Energy with the task of reseraching and developing sites for deep geologic disposal. In 1983, nine locations, which had been studied for a decade, were chosen as possible sites for repository. After further preliminary studies, President Reagan in 1985 approved of detailed study into three sites: Hanford, Washington; Deaf Smith County, Texas; and Yucca Mountain, Nevada. In 1987, Congress amended the Nuclear Waste Policy Act so that it called upon the DoE to specifically study only Yucca Mountain. Under the Act, if Yucca Mountain is found to be an unsuitable site at any point, the project and its associated studies will cease immediately.
Yucca Mountain is a 6,332-foot-tall extinct volcanic ridge in southern Nevada, approximately 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas. No one lives on or near Yucca Mountain, and all of the land is federally owned. The area is extremely dry (7" precipitation a year), and the water table is extremely deep (2,000 feet down), making water contamination nearly impossible. Water contamination is the most likely way for radioactive material to escape a respository. At Yucca Mountain, rain or snow would have to travel 1,000 feet into the Earth through rock to reach the repository, and then travel another 1,000 feet to reach the water table and escape the site. This is highly unlikely, especially because most of the mountain's scant precipitation evaporates.
Construction of the site would have no effect on the surface of the mountain. Construction crews and machines would enter the site through underground tunnels, and the site itself would be more than 800 feet from the surface. The surface gamma radiation levels mandated for the site by the EPA are so strict that it is less than 1/50 of the radiation emitted by statues made of granite and marble. The standards also guarantee these levels, mandated by President Clinton on his last day of office, for 10,000 years. It is my hope that the Bush EPA will embrace more sensible and affordable standards, but I believe that the facility's radiation levels will be extremely safe either way. Some environmental activists push for even more ridiculous radiation levels, in the hope that the cost will force the government to abandon the Yucca Mountain project, thereby sabotaging the future of American nuclear power. I find this to be a shortsighted view, as nuclear power is much cleaner than most alternatives feasible at this time. The unnecessary stigma attached to nuclear power, as well as the Russian ineptitude that led to the Chernobyl catastophe, make the building of nuclear facilities tough enough as it is.
The Department of Energy is indeed sensitive to Native American concerns, despite what you may have read elsewhere. Tribes of Southern Paiute, Western Shoshone, and Owens Valley Paiute/Shoshone have traditional links to the mountain, though no tribe currently lives on the site. All land is "holy" to Native Americans, and the DoE has put an admirable amount of effort into attempting to mitigate the environmental impact of the project in areas of particular historical and cultural importance to Native Americans. They have done this by carrying out large ethnographic and archeologic studies on the site, as well as through consulting with tribal leaders. Thanks to these studies, and the genuine efforts of tribal leaders to relate their knowledge of the area to the DoE despite the "crying Indian" stereotype, the cultural history of Yucca Mountain has now been extensively recorded. Exhibits about Native American history, including detailed information about the area's plants and animals, have been erected at the Yucca Mountain science centers for the public.
Obviously the geology of the site is of utmost importance to the project, and numerous studies have been undertaken so ensure that waste at the site would remain isolated. The Yucca Mountain ridge was formed when a caldera known as Timber Mountain exploded repeatedly more than 12 million years ago. Today, Timber Mountain is extinct, but seven small dormant volcanoes still exist about 15 miles from Yucca. Of those volcanoes, only one has been active at all in the past 75,000 years. The others have not erupted for hundreds of thousands of years. The chance of an eruption occuring in the next 10,000 years is miniscule, and scientists have estimated that the possibility of a volcanic eruption affecting a radioactive waste repository at Yucca Mountain is about one in 70 million per year.
Underground structures are not as vulnerable to earthquakes as you may believe. The Southern Great Basin Seismic Network monitors seismic activity in the area, and the chances of an earthquake affecting a nuclear waste repository have been deemed remote. Not only is the area not especially seismically active, but Yucca Mountain is not far from mines in which nuclear testing has occured. These mines withstood underground nuclear blasts, which create more a great deal more local ground movement than naturally occuring earthquakes. Any surface repository facilities, such as the tunnel openings and support buildings, would be made to withstand earthquakes.
The federal government's nuclear waste disposal program, with the exception of the disposal of defense-related waste, is paid for exclusively by the Nuclear Waste Fund. This fund stems from a .1¢ fee paid by the utilities per kilowatt-hour of nuclear-generated electricity. If and when the Yucca Mountain site is approved, waste will be transported by truck and rail in specially shielded containers from all over the country to the site. Yucca Mountain will serve the country's waste disposal needs until its closure in 2116.
On this issue, I'm inclined to agree with the cross-eyed little man.