We’re Storing Radioactive Waste Where Now?

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Jan. 30 2013 1:27 PM

America’s Nuclear Dumpsters

After Yucca Mountain, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is stocking up on guns and ammo.

Samples from Idaho National Laboratory's Advanced Test Reactor (ATR) core will be sent to Argonne's ATLAS particle accelerator for analysis to learn the characteristics of the nuclear material. Powered up, the fuel plates can be seen glowing bright blue. The core is submerged in water for cooling.
Samples from Idaho National Laboratory's Advanced Test Reactor (ATR) core will be sent to Argonne's ATLAS particle accelerator for analysis to learn the characteristics of the nuclear material. Powered up, the fuel plates can be seen glowing bright blue. The core is submerged in water for cooling.

Photo by Matt Howard/Advanced Test Reactor core, Idaho National Laboratory/Wikimedia Commons

While the rest of America spent January debating new gun control laws, one government agency announced its plans to expand the use of high-capacity magazines, assault weapons, and even fully automatic machine guns. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which oversees the nation's nuclear plants, is seeking the firepower not for securing the plants themselves, but to defend their nuclear waste.

Since America's commercial reactors started opening in the 1960s and ’70s, nuclear waste has been piling up. At first, it was stored in spent fuel pools—swimming pools you'd never, ever want to swim in. That was fine for a time, but by the 1980s, the pools started to get crowded. So the utilities began putting old fuel rods in something they call dry cask storage, and I'll call nuclear dumpsters. They're big, they're white, and they're literally kept out back like the rest of the trash.

This system of nuclear disposal might seem a bit shortsighted. Plutonium-239 has a half-life of 24,100 years; the full life of a machine-gun-toting security guard is 80 or 90, tops. There's got to be a better solution. And here's the crazy part: There is. The scientists have proposed it. The environmentalists and the power companies agree on it. So why isn't America doing it?

The answer in one word: politics. When the nuclear plants were built, the utilities never wanted to take care of the waste long-term. That was going to be the job of the federal government. Under the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act, the feds were supposed to find a place to bury the old fuel for good. Deep geologic disposal (as it's known) was, and still is, considered the best long-term solution for nuclear waste.

The Department of Energy started considering a number of sites, including one in Washington, one in Texas, and one in Nevada. They were taking their sweet time doing scientific studies, so in 1987, Congress decided to choose for them. Jim Wright, the speaker of the House, was from Texas. Tom Foley, the majority leader, was from Washington State. That left Nevada. Under an amendment to the original act, Yucca Mountain, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, was enshrined in law as America's nuclear landfill.

I've been to Yucca Mountain, and you could be forgiven for thinking it would make a great place for nuclear waste. It's in the middle of the desert, and the only signs of life for miles are a few trailers, a state prison, and a brothel. It's also right next to a patch of land where the government conducted underground nuclear weapons tests. There's plenty of spare tunneling equipment lying around. There have been some serious technical issues raised over the years, but the folks at the Department of Energy thought they could engineer their way around them.

But there is one problem no amount of engineering can fix: Almost everybody in Nevada hates the project. Around 75 percent of the state's citizenry opposed Yucca Mountain from the day it was forced on them by Congress, says Steve Frishman, a geologist who works with Nevada's Nuclear Waste Task Force. Opposing the waste dump “is still a litmus test for statewide elected office,” he says.

National office, too. Harry Reid, now the powerful Senate majority leader, was a junior senator when Yucca Mountain was designated in 1987, and he has devoted his entire career to killing the project. And in a 2008 campaign speech in Las Vegas, President Obama promised to find “some place other than right here at Yucca Mountain" for the nation's nuclear waste. He went on to win the state.

After the 2008 election, Reid and Obama set to work killing the site with the same political zeal as the 1987 Congress that assigned it to Nevada. First, Reid slashed the funding for work at Yucca. Then in 2010, the Department of Energy announced it would withdraw its application for a license to store nuclear waste there.

Cherenkov radiation in the Maria reactor named after Marie Curie, in Poland, June 2010
Cherenkov radiation in the Maria reactor named after Marie Curie, in Poland, June 2010

Photo by A. Rumińska/Wikimedia Commons

But here's the really crazy part. At the same time that Obama killed Yucca Mountain, he assigned a bipartisan, blue-ribbon panel to look at the nuclear waste problem. Their conclusion was that deep geologic disposal was still the best option, but this time around, the feds should try to find a state and local government that actually want to host a giant nuclear waste dump. Getting local communities to buy into a nuclear waste repository isn't easy. Just this week, the Cumbria County Council in the United Kingdom voted down plans for a repository. But the strategy has worked in places like Sweden and Finland, and compared with the American solution of trying to force a dump on a politically weak state, it's a lot more sensible. Frishman, who's spent decades fighting Yucca Mountain, thinks it’s the way to go. So does the Nuclear Energy Institute, the Washington lobby for the nuclear industry. And so does the Union of Concerned Scientists, an environmental organization. You get the idea.

There's only one problem: The 1987 law specifically names Yucca Mountain as the U.S. site for the nation's first nuclear waste dump. Legally, there is no other option. The Department of Energy can't even ask for a show of hands of other places that might want to take a nuke dump in exchange for jobs and benefits. Meanwhile, the NRC is being sued by two states and several utilities for letting the government withdraw its license for the Yucca site. (The plaintiffs are stuck with nuclear waste they want to ship away.) Since there is no technical reason not to consider Yucca Mountain, the lawsuit claims that the withdrawal breaks the law.

And thus we come back to those big, white nuclear dumpsters out behind the power plants. They aren’t pretty, but until the politicians can work it out, they're the only option. Researchers think that they can last for decades. That's less than a single percent of the time it will take for most of the nuclear waste to decay, but it’s still good news. At the rate Congress is going, we'll need all the time we can get.

Geoff Brumfiel is a reporter based in London. Read his freak of nature blog for more on Curiosity's plutonium and other things.