A Perfect Place For Nuclear Waste

Jerry Coffee
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Wednesday - March 28, 2007
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After 22 years flying on United Airlines, I’m a 2-and-a-half-million miler in its “Mileage Plus” program. That sounds impressive no matter how many years, but as you fellow “road warriors” know, it’s a dubious distinction; i.e. too many hours with my butt strapped to boring 747s and bouncy Beech turbo-props; too many sleepless “red-eyes” landing at bedtime; and too much Sam Choy’s salad dressing in business class.

This is simply to say that I’ve flown across the continental U.S. more times than I can count. And every time I look down upon the variegated browns of the southwestern deserts of Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico and Southern Colorado, I’m always struck by the same question, “What do they mean there’s no safe place to bury spent nuclear fuel?”

Yesterday’s four-hour drive on I-10 from Phoenix to Palm Springs through some of those same desolate and desiccated deserts only affirmed the question. We drove dozens of miles at a time without a sign of civilization that didn’t exist solely to serve the Interstate itself. Cross roads were sparse, with names like “Cut Finger Road” or “Dry Lake Pass.” But as it turned out, when we hit the border town of Blyth, Calif., we were 100 miles or so south of the one desert location that actually has been selected for a major national nuclear storage site, Yucca Mountain (YM), Nev.

The ultimate selection of the site has been characterized as “politically weak Nevada just lost the game of musical chairs!” The concept is to store waste from nuclear weapons production and power plant operations in deep repositories cut into basalt rock to accommodate waste materials packaged in stainless steel or ceramic containers. The completion of YM and its licensing by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) are decades behind schedule.

With the delays came more precise geological technology and more sophisticated computer modeling, making it apparent that Yucca Mountain’s rock wasn’t as solid as originally thought, and small fissures made slow seepage of contaminated water from the storage areas (dubiously assuming decomposition of the storage containers) a possibility, thereby threatening contamination of water to a small populated valley 12 miles “downstream” in 10,000 years! One computer model takes it out to 1 million years. With such stringent standards, after 20 years and billions of dollars, the future of YM is still in question. And without a satisfactory method of storing high-level nuclear waste, the future of nuclear power in our country is still problematic.

One facility in Carlsbad, N.M., a Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP) is actually up and running for the storage of lower-level radioactive waste such as equipment and clothing from the nation’ power plants. At the Carlsbad WIPP, waste is buried in salt caverns which ultimately contract to actually encase it. Radioactive seepage is minimal.

Another alternative with some promise is storing nuclear waste on site at its origin. There are around 35 NRC licensed, Independent Spent Fuel Storage Installations around the country now, usually integral to the facility that produced the waste. And this method precludes the inevitable political, safety and security hassles in transporting waste to a national repository.

Perhaps best of all, new nuclear reactor technology will minimize radioactive waste even more, making nuclear energy a more viable alternative for our growing needs.

One of the greatest obstacles the YM facility is still having to overcome is the “Not In My Back Yard” (NIMBY) syndrome. Here on Oahu we saw the same phenomenon when HECO proposed a windmill farm on the slopes behind the Kahe Point Power Plant, which Makakilo residents considered to be their “back yard.” The project, as comparatively benign as it was, was dropped.

It would be comforting to look down on that Mainland landscape (or even Oahu’s) and see nuclear power vs. fossil fuel at work.

Japan, France, Britain and others have worked through their nuclear power phobia.

It’s time we do too.

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