Long-Term Uncertainty
03.21.2011, 4:57 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Yucca Mountain

Even as the struggle at Fukushima continues, the coverage of events in Japan already have begun to fade into the background of more recent “breaking news.” Still, it’s worth noting that public awareness and investment in the storage and handling of nuclear materials in the United States grew immensely over the past two weeks.  An abundance of intelligent, thoughtful, and even eloquent writing filled newspapers and magazines these past several days, offering readers a suddenly relevant crash course in nuclear power, waste, and materiality.

Some notable voices include Rachel Maddow in her special series on nuclear power,  Elizabeth Kolbert’s piece in the New Yorker and Jonathan Schell‘s essay in the New York Times. We here at FOP can’t help but appreciate Schell’s provocation for long-term thinking:

“Some have suggested that in light of the new developments we should abandon nuclear power. I have a different proposal, perhaps more in keeping with the peculiar nature of the peril. Let us pause and study the matter. For how long?

Plutonium, a component of nuclear waste, has a half-life of 24,000 years, meaning that half of it is transformed into other elements through radioactive decay. This suggests a time-scale. We will not be precipitous if we study the matter for only half of that half-life, 12,000 years.

In the interval, we can make a search for safe new energy sources, among other useful endeavors.”

We also appreciated Allison M. Macfarlane’s piece in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. For the last couple of weeks we’ve been reading a collection by Macfarlane, co-edited with Rodney C. Ewing, exploring the proposed repository at Yucca Mountain. Though Uncertainty Underground was published in 2006, and the Yucca Mountain project seems to be discontinued at this moment, the book offers stunning and accessible insights to the numerous scientific and technical issues that the U.S. needs to resolve on its way to its first geologic repository site. This site will attempt to contain the spent nuclear fuel generated by our country’s nuclear power plants, tons of materials similar what has been overheating and dispersing into the air above Fukushima, Japan.

It’s become painfully clear over the last seven days that the surface of the earth is a highly unstable and unpredictable place to store volatile radioactive materials.  Fukushima’s reality check has made the necessity of developing a geologic repository ever more urgent.  But the process isn’t one that can be rushed.  Macfarlane and Ewing’s book objectively surveys the radical uncertainties that we face when attempting to contain nuclear materiality underground for the required span of 1,000,000 years. Uncertainties that plague efforts to locate, research, design, license, open, fill, and close a nuclear waste repository have yet to be resolved anywhere in the world.  But finally, they are being named and voiced in ways that non-experts can begin to grasp.

Here, we take the first sentence of each of the 24 chapters in Uncertainty Underground and offer them up to FOP readers as a poetic meditation on geologic uncertainties of the present moment.  The authors are geoscientists, members of the nuclear industry, and government officials:

Despite substantial effort during the past several decades, there is, at present, no geologic repository receiving spent fuel or high-level nuclear waste.

This book has been a long time coming.

The issue of how to solve the problem of nuclear waste has already generated heated debate among policymakers, scientists, and the public, and promises to continue into the future.

The United States is approaching a key milestone in a decades-long decision process for developing a geologic repository for high-level radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel.

The geologic disposal of nuclear waste is conceptually simple and logically sound, but the processes of repository development and regulation are technically as well as socially complicated.

The proposed nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain has generated many studies that cover a wide range of geologic and engineering issues.

In chapter  four, Whipple described how performance assessments are completed, how the results will be used, and the principal sources of uncertainty in such analysis.

During his 2000 presidential campaign, then Governor George W. Bush declared in a letter to Nevada Governor Kenny Guinn that “sound science, and not politics,” would guide his decision on Yucca Mountain as a site for a nuclear waste repository.

The advantages of Yucca Mountain as a nuclear waste disposal site are clear enough.

Imagine Yucca Mountain some hundreds to thousands of years from now.

Yucca Mountain’s suitability as a nuclear waste repository stems largely from its very dry climate and deep water table.

Arguments have raged for more than a decade over whether hot water from deep within the Earth could in the future flood the proposed nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain.

From a human perspective, the desert environment around Yucca Mountain seems harsh and uninviting.

No matter how effective the final engineered barrier system at Yucca Mountain will be in isolating more than seventy thousand metric tons of high-level nuclear waste, it will eventually fail.

Designers of nuclear waste repositories assume that over millennia, the waste containers will eventually corrode and release radionuclides into the local environment.

The movement of contaminated groundwater away from the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository site is expected to be the most likely way that people can be exposed to escaping radioactivity.

The radioactivity of high-level nuclear waste release significant amounts of heat for thousands of years.

A geologic repository for nuclear waste is commonly divided into two domains: the near field and the far field.

Retarding the release of radionuclides from the proposed nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain will require a system of multiple barriers.

A repository at Yucca Mountain will depend on both geologic and engineered barriers for safety.

More than 40,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel are now stored at commercial nuclear plants around the country.

For nations that use nuclear power, the fate of the used nuclear fuel is a major concern.

High-level radioactive waste from the burn up of seventy thousand metric tons of heavy metal may be disposed of in the Yucca Mountain geologic repository.

Not all the nuclear waste destined for Yucca Mountain is in the form of spent fuel.

The legitimacy of the Yucca Mountain Project has been clouded for more than a few scientists by a belief that narrowing the search to Yucca Mountain was blatantly political, arbitrary, and without sound technical basis.

I end this book with a discussion of uncertainty, the theme that has been woven through the chapters.


a cooling pool for spent nuclear fuel, image Simone Ramella


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