Do we still need Yucca Mountain, the long-debated spent nuclear fuel repository that would bury highly toxic radioactive waste for hundreds of thousands of years? Well-respected geochemist James Conca is arguing that the underground vault for spent nuclear fuel (SPF) is an expensive, political football that is no longer needed. So why bother building it?
The debate on Yucca Mountain is now around 40-years old. At last sighting, the Obama administration buried the idea, given that the president owed some allegiance to then Nevada Senator Harry Reid, who retired this year at age 77.
Reid stood up for the “not in my backyard,” crowd, asserting that the underground repository in his state would not be built on his watch. But now, there’s a new administration at the helm in Washington and the picture is changing. Trump has said he is pro-nuclear power. It has not garnered many headlines because it is not one of his pet peeves, one way or another. But the need for a sophisticated storage facility deep underground – at a cost, incidentally, of billions of dollars – has long been assumed to be the solution to the problem of spent fuel, which is currently stored in dry casks at individual nuclear power plants across the country.
Even nuclear power plants that have closed are responsible for storing the fuel they used when the facility was in operation. For example, Vermont Yankee was shut down in December 2014. But the owner, Entergy Corporation, is stuck maintaining the fuel on the property for the next, oh, hundred thousand years or so or until a long-term storage facility is built.
Conca argues, in an article published by Forbes this week, that two things have happened since the 1970s when the spent nuclear fuel question was first thought to have an answer in Yucca Mountain. Both are significant.
First, a new generation of nuclear reactors is in development. Those new reactors can make use of the spent nuclear fuel from today’s commercial reactors, meaning they can squeeze more juice out of the spent fuel and, subsequently, have an end-product that is less hazardous than it is now. If it uses more of the uranium’s energy to generate steam, which turns the turbines, then the leftover waste from the new reactors cook out some of the toxicity of the current supply.
That means, if we bury this valuable spent fuel, we just have to dig up more raw uranium out of the ground to fuel the new reactors, when we had plenty of it sitting around at various nuclear power plants, anyway.
Secondly, Conca says, the forty years of arguing about Yucca Mountain – it was subjected to decade-long studies by the U.S. government, before meeting with Nuclear Regulatory Commission approval – has allowed the hot fuel to cool down. Most of the SNF stored in dry casks around the country is now less harmful than the hot radioactive waste that already has a place to go near Carlsbad, N.M., where the government runs the Waste Isolation Pilot Program (WIPP).
The WIPP facility is an underground repository that stores the waste in the “massive Permian-age salts” of New Mexico, as opposed to the “highly fractured, variably-saturated, dual-porosity Yucca Mt volcanic tuff with highly oxidizing groundwater – that was the wrong rock to begin with,” which makes that site technically challenging and expensive, says Conca.
Breaking this down, Conca explains there are four official categories of waste. Spent nuclear fuel (SNF) is the hottest. High-level waste (HLW) is the next hottest, followed by transuranic waste (TRU) from our nuclear weapons program and low-level waste (LLW), which is the coolest of the four.
The waste designated as low-level (LLW) has places to go – at six sites around the country. Weapons-grade waste (TRU) has a designation, as well. The repository in New Mexico was built for TRU waste.
That leaves HLW as one problem. But the HLW has been processed. “We removed most of the hot stuff from the HLW tanks (137Cs/90Sr), and the rest has radioactively-decayed to TRU and is no longer high-level,” says Conca.
That includes “all those high-level tanks” at the federal facility in Hanford, Wa. Once HLW, these “are now filled with TRU waste, and many other tanks there, particularly the leakers, were already filled with TRU,” says Conca, who asserts that some of the TRU waste already in storage in New Mexico is, in fact, hotter than some of the HLW at Hanover, that currently has no place to go.
So, why not ship it to New Mexico?
That leaves the hottest of the hot, the SNF from the nation’s commercial plants, which needs to be 1) kept in dry storage and 2) held close at hand for future use in new facilities. So, why do we need Yucca Mountain anymore, anyway, Conca asks.
The argument has a technical side, part of which is also practical – or impractical. “Each waste determination,” using archaic statutes, officially allows for waste to be classified in various categories. But that “can take three to five years to complete and cost several million dollars.” That would mean re-evaluating 57 million gallons of waste – obviously an impractical step and a costly one.
However, using a new definition of HLW provided by the House Armed Services Committee and under consideration in Congress, radioactive waste can be judged by the “relative hazard” that it presents. In that manner, “nothing left in the HLW tanks is over 1 Ci/liter, which measures concentrations of fission products in the material. The definition for HLW, meanwhile, would be 7 Ci/liter – seven times as toxic.
In other words, we already have viable solutions for our nuclear waste problem. Reviving the Yucca Mountain option now is moot, says Conca. “Alternative facts aside, we really cannot afford to do dumb things that cost hundreds of billions of dollars,” he wrote. “Treating over 50 million gallons of nuclear waste as high-level, when it isn’t, is dumb.”