The alternatives to storing nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain.

Illuminating answers to environmental questions.
April 15 2008 8:11 AM

Not in My Back Yucca

What are our alternatives for storing radioactive waste?

Yucca Mountain
Yucca Mountain proposed nuclear waste depository

It seems like the good citizens of Nevada would sooner elect an orangutan as governor than let the federal government fill Yucca Mountain with radioactive waste. Can't blame them, I guess, but that spent nuclear fuel has to go somewhere. What, then, are the alternatives to stashing it beneath Yucca Mountain? 

For the moment, the only real option is to leave the waste where it was created, encased in metal cylinders and stowed in concrete bunkers. Barring the machinations of some truly ingenious evildoers, that approach should get us safely through the next century or so. Unfortunately, we'll still have another 9,900 years to go until the waste becomes no more radioactive than unmined uranium. So, we better hope that over the next 100 years, our nation's best and brightest figure out a feasible workaround—one that may involve proton beams or (the Lantern kids you not) extremely hardy microbes.

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Before we get to the gee-whiz proposals, though, a little Yucca Mountain background is in order. Though the facility has been in the works since the Reagan administration and has already cost upward of $8 billion, there's a good chance it will never store a spoonful of waste. The state of Nevada has vowed to litigate the project to death, citing concerns over the potential for groundwater contamination and the prevalence of earthquakes in the area. (Nevada's point-by-point anti-Yucca dossier can be found here [PDF].)

Strict rationalists pooh-pooh the Silver State's concerns, pointing out that the odds of a catastrophe are vanishingly small. But when it comes to the specter of radiation, people are rarely comforted by actuarial arguments. Unless the government can prove that Yucca Mountain's storage casks won't leak a speck of waste over the next 10 millenniums—a scientific impossibility—Nevadans generally want nothing to do with the project. (The Lantern sees both sides of the argument—he likes to think of himself as a proud man of reason, but he also remembers being seriously freaked out by Chernobyl as a child.)

As a result of Nevada's litigiousness—as well as Democratic Sen. Harry Reid's political maneuvering—the opening of Yucca Mountain has already been delayed for a decade. The best-case scenario now has the facility opening sometime around 2020; the Lantern guesses, however, that the project is kaput, especially if there's a Democrat in the White House come January. (Both Clinton and Obama are opposed to Yucca Mountain; McCain is not.) But Yucca Mountain's woes may not be a great tragedy, seeing as how the project would solve little over the long term: According to a high-ranking official at Argonne National Laboratory, the nation will need nine Yucca-sized waste repositories by 2100, assuming that nuclear-power generation increases by 1.8 percent annually.

The good news is that we've got a viable stopgap solution: dry-cask storage. After nuclear fuel rods have been used up, they're cooled in pools of water. After five years of such cooling, they can be placed in sealed casks made of heat-resistant metal alloys and concrete. This technique is currently used at 31 locations nationwide, all of which must be licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The NRC asserts that there has never been a single incident at any of these sites.

The conventional wisdom is that these dry-cask storage sites will suffice for at least the next 100 years. But they'll fill up at some point, and some worry over their vulnerability to terrorist attacks, natural catastrophes, or theft. The whole rationale for Yucca Mountain was to secure all high-level nuclear waste in a single, safe location; with that project now imperiled, what's a nuclear nation to do?

Trust with every fiber of our beings that science keeps marching forward. Nevada's anti-Yucca dossier neatly summarizes this optimistic attitude: "It is almost inconceivable that progress in waste treatment and disposal methods will cease over the next century." There are several promising techniques in the pipeline, starting with accelerator-driven transmutation of waste, in which proton beams are used to reduce a substance's half-life. ATW is a favorite of Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., who gives it a shout-out on his anti-Yucca Mountain page. But skeptics claim that ATW is far too expensive and laborious, and will never be able to handle anything more than a token amount of waste.

There is also great interest in using microbes to either trap dangerous isotopes in calcite deposits or cleanse uranium from groundwater. And chemists at Northwestern University recently announced that layered metal sulfides show promise for the remediation of certain types of nuclear waste.

While these cleanup techniques are at least several decades away from commercial viability, we already know how to recycle nuclear waste. Nuclear recycling is every bit as controversial as Yucca Mountain, however. Several European nations currently use the PUREX process, in which spent fuel is bathed in nitric acid so that uranium and plutonium can be extracted. But PUREX isn't used in the United States because of its high cost, as well as the perceived risk of weapons proliferation.

Many in the American nuclear-power industry favor the development of UREX+, a recycling process that ostensibly addresses these concerns. The end products could then be used in advanced burner reactors. But UREX+ has plenty of critics (PDF), who contend that the process is neither as clean nor as  proliferation-resistant as it's cracked up to be.

Perhaps our best hope for resolving all this he-said, she-said rancor is the development of nuclear fusion plants, which will theoretically produce waste that remains extraordinarily lethal for mere decades, as opposed to millennia. Hey, you never know—though the Lantern puts the odds at slightly less than those of a robotic horse winning the Kentucky Derby.

Is there an environmental quandary that's been keeping you up at night? Send it to ask.the.lantern@gmail.com, and check this space every Tuesday.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for Gizmodo. His first book, Now the Hell Will Start, is out now.