Yucca Mountain

After 2 decades of research, the US Department of Energy (DOE) is applying for a permit to build the world’s first high level nuclear waste dump. The proposed dump, at Yucca Mountain, 90 miles NW of Las Vegas, is more controversial than ever; even the US government’s General Accounting Office opined that the site research is flimsy. The rush to start building is not motivated by public safety, but by corporate greed. The waste is fine, for the time being, in its current locations at reactors across the country. But with a pro-nuclear president in office, the nuclear industry is leaping at the first hint of an opportunity to build more reactors. And nobody is going to invest in new plants until there’s some place to put the waste that’s piling up at currently operating reactors.

Unfortunately, as progress on Yucca Mountain is delayed, the rapacious nuclear industry is privately hunting for other temporary waste storage options. A consortium of companies is trying to contract with the Skull Valley Goshute Tribe to store waste on their reservation in Utah. Yucca Mountain itself is Western Shoshone land that the government is trying to buy out from under them. Forget the bungled Yucca Mountain project: power plants and the communities and industries that use their power need to deal with their waste locally and boot out the insidious cop-out called the national sacrifice zone.

There are several major flaws with the Yucca Mountain project:

1. Repository safety over the 10,000 year time period that the waste remains dangerous: Using our reasonably well-developed knowledge of geology, we (humanity) can predict how parts of the earth will act over the next 10,000 year period. In terms of geologic time, 10,000 year is not very long.

However, add radioactive waste to the puzzle, and the job of predicting what will happen becomes extremely complex. The whole earth is sitting around us for geologists and chemists to study, extrapolating the future based on the present and the past. But there are no high-level nuclear dumps presently in existence to help researchers forecast how the darned thing will stand up to the test of time. Scientists use computer models to stretch the results of short-term radioactive waste experiments into the realms of geologic time. Of course, we won’t be around to see if the models were right or not. The research is a gray matter of prediction, statistics, of “reasonable” degrees of safety, like when “safe sex” became “safer sex”.

But there are major critiques of the research process the Department of Energy (DOE) is using to determine the “reasonable safety” of a dump at Yucca Mountain. Respected researchers not directly affiliated with the government suggest that the DOE relies too heavily on one complex computer model, instead of using a number of smaller, more focused models. Results between the large model, secondary models, and lab and field experiments do not match up well enough, and scientists think the main model’s data set is too small.

The DOE is attempting a super-human task, and failing- both because the task is beyond humanity’s current abilities, and because their motivations are in the wrong place. According to scientists who have worked on the project, research was done slowly and thoroughly during the first few years of the project. But in the early 1990’s, the DOE, haunted by their 1998 deadline (long past), began to rush. A thorough understanding of how radioactive waste would interact with the mountain’s geology was too complicated a goal, they decided ñ so in order to meet (friendly) pressure put on by the nuclear industry, they changed the project focus. Their contractors would build a dump that relied not on the mountain itself to keep the waste contained, but societies exist on the scale of thousands of years, not tens of thousands. Everything decays. Because we’re confident in our knowledge of geology, it is reasonable that


Congress may kill the Yucca Mountain project within a few weeks, if Nevada Senator Harry Reid has his way. Earlier this spring President Bush formally recommended Yucca Mountain as the site for the dump. (Why he felt comfortable with this questionable recommendation will be explored later.) Nevada Governor Kenny Guinn vetoed Bush’s recommendation, as allowed by 1982 waste disposal legislation. Congress has 90 days to override the veto by a simple majority, which the House quickly did. The Senate vote must happen before late July. As of press time, Sen. Reid didn’t have quite enough votes together to save the Nevada veto – but with lobby money pouring in from all sides, the balance may be tipped.

If the senate overrules the veto, the DOE then has 90 days to submit a construction license to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which has up to 4 years to okay the license before construction can begin.

The task is insurmountable

Whenever science and regulatory issues intersect, there’s high potential for scientific propaganda. Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham said his recommendation to President Bush in favor of the site was based on “sound science.” Science that sounded good to whom? Not to three inertia-bound Washington regulatory agencies, including the General Accounting Office, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (responsible for licensing the repository), and an “independent” federal reviewer of nuclear waste disposal, the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board, all three of which expressed substantial concerns. Scientists not directly affiliated with the government echoed the doubt.

After 20 years and $4 million worth of research, serious questions still remain about Yucca Mountain’s ability to isolate nuclear waste over a 10,000 year period. Of course – and the trick is that we can never know whether a dump does in fact meet up to it’s expected ability to contain the waste. We will put the waste in the dump, keep it open for maybe 300 years to perform tests, and then seal it up. We have no prior experience with dump performance. We have to rely on our knowledge of geologic processes and computer models to predict the outcome. But scientists don’t think that the DOE’s main model relies on a large enough data set, and there are disagreements between other models and laboratory experiment results.

A main source of conflict is the information about movement of water through the mountain. Knowledge about water flow is crucial to predicting dump safety because water is the main way radioactive particles would move away from the dump. Estimates of water movement have varied significantly over the years, and no consensus has been reached. After thinking that flow rates were slow, particles of chlorine-36, an isotope produced by nuclear weapon tests, were found within the mountain, suggesting that water does actually move fairly quickly through the area. This issue still has not been resolved.

After encountering so many difficulties predicting the geology and the natural environment of the mountain over the next 10,000 years, the DOE decided to shift their focus towards engineered solutions to keeping the waste dry. The waste containers would be placed under titanium umbrellas to keep the water out. But the same problem still exists- the DOE is glossing over the necessary experiments to predict how the “drip shields” would corrode! Also missing are solid conclusions on how the waste containers themselves will stand up to the test of time.

Another major knowledge gap centers around volcanic activity and faults in the area. Finally, the DOE has not even resolved a major design factor – whether dump should be “hot” or “cold”, depending on how far apart the containers of heat-generating waste are placed from each other.

The nuclear lobby

With such serious holes in the research, why is the DOE pretending it is ready to apply for a license? Predictably, the whole process surrounding the Yucca Mountain dump has been primarily political. The
primary motivation behind the dump is the nuclear industry’s desire to build more nuclear plants. Bush and Cheney have the first pro-nuclear energy policy in years (?), but more importantly, if Yucca Mountain is struck down, there is no fall-back option. Utilities will have to indefinately store their waste at the plants, in storage pools filled with water and, as these fill up, in concrete and steel casks. Both methods are safe- but don’t allow for much expansion of nuclear power.

Congress initially authorized investigation of three potential high-level waste dump sites, including Yucca Mountain, a site in west Texas, and a site near the Hanford nuclear reservation in southwestern Washington. In 1987, Congress eliminated all but Yucca Mountain. Both the Texas and Washington sites were within the boundaries of major aquifers, and studying three sites would have been extremely expensive… but most importantly, the decision was strongly affected by the presence of powerful congress members in both states.

Now, in anticipation of the Senate vote, the nuclear industry is lining senators’ pockets. According to Public Citizen, a contribution watch group, only 7 current senators have received no money from nuclear industry Political Action Committees (PACs). In 2002 alone, senators and a few leading senate candidates have taken $1.3 million from nuke PACs. And of the 20 top recipients of nuke PAC money, 8 sit on the Senate Energy Committee and 6 on the Environment and Public Works Committee, both key committees dealing with nuclear power.

Money talks. So the state of Nevada is entering the conversation with a $5.5 million advertising campaign that has already placed ads in Washington and in selected states with important senators, including Vermont, home of Senate Environment Committee Jim Jeffords (I). The players are quickly coming out of the closet: the Las Vegas gaming industry, with a history of quietly lobbying against the dump, is now publicly pouring money into this advertising fund, and boosting its own PAC contributions. Don’t overlook the direct beneficiaries of all this government chicanery, the advertising industry, lobbyists, and paid consultants.

Another slick scenario fell on its face when it surfaced that the law firm hired by the DOE to prepare the Yucca Mountain license application (a $16.5 million contract), had two major conflicts of interest: the firm, Chicago’s Winston and Strawn, was also representing a Yucca Mountain contractor, TRW Environmental Safety Systems, Inc, and the main industry lobby group, the Nuclear Energy Institute. The DOE is expected to hire another firm that has actually represented a number of utilities in suits against the DOE. Does this make sense?

Logic MIA

Where’s the logic behind the Yucca Mountain dump? And, by extension, behind nuclear power, the root of the problem? The problem of predicting dump behavior for the next 10,000 years is fantastically interesting but can’t stand up to the realities of current scientific knowledge – especially when the investigation is biased by the political clout of the nuclear industry.

But if Yucca Mountain somehow evades the industry’s grasp, the fist will fall elsewhere in an attempt to relieve the utilities of their waste burden. A consortium of 8 private utilities is negotiating with the Skull Valley Goshute tribe to build a temporary storage facility on their reservation. Surrounded by a chemical weapon test facility, a nerve agent factory, a polluting coal power plant, and a low-level radioactive waste dump , the Skull Valley reservation is surrounded by the epitome of a national sacrifice zone. The tribe website states they can make money no other way and so are negotiating to store the waste. This waste, too dangerous for the communities in which it is produced, can acceptably be stored on native peoples’ land?

No! The waste can be safely stored where it is, at the power plants that used it to generate power, in the local where the power was consumed. If the local community is anti-nuclear, if it says it did not ask for the plant in the first place- well fine, but the community used the power, and the waste can be stored safely. Nuclear plants need to entomb themselves, not endlessly generate waste to lay on far-away people already on the US’s shitlist.