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Nuclear waste: No way out? takes you into Nevada’s Yucca Mountain and the debate over what the United States should do with its radioactive waste from nuclear power plants.
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The slow ride into the belly of Yucca Mountain offers time to reflect on the magnitude of what’s going on here. Never before has man tried to dig a tomb shielding us from something so deadly for so long — at least 10,000 years. What the $58 billion project would bury is 77,000 tons of highly radioactive waste from nuclear power plants across the United States.

For Abe Van Luik, a senior policy adviser for the U.S. Energy Department’s Yucca Mountain Project, that engineering challenge is what drives his dedication. And that dedication makes him defensive about the work that’s gone into the project so far — $7 billion to pay for millions of manhours of research and the exploratory tunnel that takes scientists and visitors into the mountain.

“They try to make us look like dopes and doofuses,” he says of critics. “It’s time for the gloves to come off.”

But critics, including environmentalists and the state of Nevada, say that even more time and thought should go into how to dispose of the waste, especially since it would be lethal for thousands of years.

Burying the waste in Yucca Mountain is “extremely bad science, extremely bad law and extremely bad public policy,” Gov. Kenny Guinn, a Republican, told Congress shortly before the U.S. House voted overwhelmingly last month to back President Bush’s recommendation that Yucca go forward.

Guinn has fought back with lawsuits and even cut off water to the project site, which sits on federal land between the Nellis Air Force Base and the Nevada Test Site, home of the nation’s nuclear weapons testing until 1992, when the tests were banned. The water war has led Yucca engineers to build their own oasis — a million-gallon reservoir in a desert populated by cacti, coyotes and pack rats.

Nuclear's future at stake

Yucca itself isn’t much of a mountain, more of a ridge actually. And it’s remote — some 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas. But that’s too close for the state of Nevada, which fears a stigma on its gambling mecca and has commissioned dozens of studies raising issues about the safety of the site as well as transporting the waste across the country. Most of the waste is uranium pellets that have been used to power nuclear reactors and remain radioactive even after they are spent.

Backed by environmental groups, Nevada says the nation’s nuclear waste should remain where it is now — in storage at the nuclear plants where the waste was generated — until a more suitable burial ground is found.

“It could be possible that in 15-20 years we’ll have better technology, we’ll know a better location for a repository, or we’ll have better science for dealing with it,” says Susan Gordon, director of the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability.

The Bush administration has pushed hard for Yucca because it wants to expand the use of nuclear power, which now provides 20 percent of the nation’s electricity. The industry wants to build 50 new nuclear power plants by 2020 at existing sites, but says it won’t have enough space to expand unless the waste is moved.

Bush signed off on the project in February, and the last legislative hurdle was the Senate, where Yucca was approved in early July. But even with approval, the project still needs a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and no shipments would start before 2010.

‘Cowardly’ Congress
The federal government first promised to create a permanent repository when it committed to nuclear power in the 1950s, and funds for disposal are built into the rates of nuclear power customers.

After studying disposal options that ranged from deep sea burial to flying the waste into space, the Department of Energy in the 1980s settled on an underground repository and came up with a short list of nine sites.

But in 1987, Congress, unhappy with the high cost of choosing a site, ordered that only Yucca be considered. Washington state and Texas also were leading states, but Yucca critics say Nevada lost out because it didn’t have the political clout to block its selection.

Van Luik says he understands the anger. Congress “cowardly tried to shove it down the throat of Nevada,” he says.

But once the decision was made, he adds, it was the Energy Department’s task to study and test Yucca’s suitability. Since then, Nevadans have been “scared by their politicians,” Van Luik says.

The science
Yucca scientists note that more time has gone into studying and testing the site than in sending the first man to the moon.

“I have more confidence in this than opening a coal mine,” says John Hartley, a geologist with the Yucca project. “They wouldn’t play all the ‘what ifs’ that we play here.”

But the review board created by Congress to monitor Yucca hasn’t shown the same confidence.

In a report issued just before Bush’s recommendation, the Nuclear Waste Review Board said its confidence level was “weak to moderate” due to the “many assumptions” that went into the project.

By law, Yucca scientists don’t have to be as rigorous in their projections of the nuclear waste’s fate beyond 10,000 years. But the board said those projections could be critically important in analyzing whether water might rust the waste containers over tens of thousands of years, allowing radioactivity to seep into the water table below.

Some outside observers concur. “No solid experiments or theory confirm the predictions that casks can survive without corrosive penetration for 10,000 years, let alone several hundred thousand years, when the most severe groundwater contamination is expected” says Thomas Pigford, a nuclear engineering professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

Uncertainties and next time
The chairman of the review board, Jared Cohon, summarized the report for senators last month, but added that “it’s up to policymakers to decide how much uncertainty is acceptable.”

Today’s policymakers aren’t the same ones who started the Yucca process 20 years ago. But since they’re the ones weighing the uncertainties they might wish their colleagues had done a better job marketing Yucca.

Gene Rosa, a Washington State University sociologist and member of a National Research Council panel on nuclear waste management, believes Congress and the Department of Energy could have done a better job if they hadn’t used a “top-down” management approach.

“They might have been more attentive to some of the key public concerns over the siting of a waste repository, especially to issues of fairness and equity,” he says, referring to Nevada’s anger. “That realization could have pointed them to another growing consensus that favors a more active, participatory role for affected publics and other key stakeholders in the process of making decisions.”

Finland's example
A report by the National Research Council panel cited Finland as an example of where a community was closely involved and eventually accepted a nuclear waste repository in its backyard. As a result, Finland, which started its process after the United States, is likely to have a repository before one is ever built here.

Van Luik is well aware of Finland’s experience and hopes that the next time U.S. policymakers try to sell a site — by law they’re supposed to start working on a new one once the first is completed — they’ll improve on their public relations, perhaps offering financial incentives to boot.

He likes the geology of North and South Dakota for a future underground repository. But Van Luik realizes that South Dakota is the home state of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and he knows that politics is the name of the nuclear waste game.

“They’ll never again be able to do what we did here,” he says, “which is force it on Nevada.”