16 April 2011

“In the Arena” Ignores Technical Problems at Yucca Mountain

Posted by John Freeland

The cable television program In the Arena hosted by Eliot Spitzer is on CNN weeknights from 8 to 9. I think it’s a good news show and try to watch regularly. The last couple of nights, they’ve had segments on nuclear waste storage presented by CNN reporter Drew Griffin. The reports have been unbalanced, in my opinion, due to the absence of any information from scientists familiar with the technical problems with Yucca Mountain. Tonight, when Mr. Spitzer asked if Yucca Mountain was safe, Mr. Griffin said it was “perfectly safe.” The thrust of Griffin’s argument is that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is standing in the way for political reasons. That may be true, but there’s more to the story.

An excellent paper is available on this topic entitled How Safe is Yucca Mountain? by Dr. Thomas B. Cochran, Senior Scientist and Director of the Nuclear Program at the NRDC. I hope Eliot Spitzer will invite him onto his program. In the paper, Dr. Cochran discusses the corrupt political process surrounding the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, also known as the “Screw Nevada Act” where Congress basically chose a remote government-owned property, the Nevada Test Site, already contaminated by years of nuclear tests, to permanently store the nation’s nuclear waste. He also slams the computer model used to evaluate the hydrologic conditions of the site. The model is so big and complex and requires so many computers and multiple iterations to find a result that it can’t be tested independently.

From Thomas Cochran:

During the site selection process the Department of Energy had adopted geologic criteria for acceptable sites (10 CFR 960). After Yucca was selected, and after DOE later realized that Yucca Mountain leaked worse than originally thought, DOE in 2001 adopted a new site selection rule (10 CFR 963) that dropped all of the troubling geologic criteria that were in the original rule. Under the new rule the Secretary of Energy could recommend the Yucca site to the president and Congress if he thought it could be licensed by the NRC, the only condition in the rule. The Secretary promptly did so.

In sum, despite having first proposed a defensible site selection process based on meeting reasonable geologic criteria, the Yucca Mountain site was selected as a candidate because the government already owned the land adjacent to the Nevada Test Site. Secondly, it was selected as the sole site to be developed for political reasons, and finally, when it became clear that Yucca did not meet the original siting criteria, the criteria were abandoned instead of the site.

If you were going to build a nuclear waste disposal facility, would you put it someplace geologically stable, or would you put it in a volcano? Some may be astonished to learn that Yucca mountain is part of a volcanic caldera. Good evidence exists that there were active vocanoes in the area as recently as 75,000 years ago. This seems like a long time ago, but, geologically, it is Late Pleistocene, and well within the time humans have existed.

The part of Nevada where Yucca Mountain is located is the “Basin and Range” mountain region characterized by large block faults. Tectonically, the area is part of the “Deformed Craton,” not the “Stable Craton.” There are major geologic faults in the area as well as volcanic activity in the not too distant geologic past. (Image Source USGS)

Some related quotes:

Yucca Mountain, a flat-topped volcanic ridge located about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, is at present the only site under consideration for disposal of the high-level nuclear wastes produced by the United States’ commercial nuclear power plants…The earthquake potential at Yucca Mountain is one of the key issues for the nuclear waste project. Earthquakes and volcanic activity could potentially disrupt the waste packages and speed up release of radioactive materials. Along with the rest of Nevada, Yucca Mountain lies within the Basin and Range province, a region of considerable Quaternary and historical earthquake activity. In the Yucca Mountain area, there are many signs of active tectonism, even though the immediate area has had few recorded earthquakes. Several active faults surround and may transect the repository site, and nearby Quaternary cinder cones indicate the recent occurrence of basaltic volcanism. – Nevada Bureau of Mines and Geology

In 2004, the U.S. Court of Appeals dismissed all of Nevada’s cases except that against the EPA. The court said the agency’s 10,000-year regulatory standard limit ran counter to recommendations from the National Academy of Science that found that the material could be hazardous much longer than that. The EPA revised their guideline, requiring the site to maintain low nuclear exposure limits up to 1 million years after Yucca Mountain is closed. Some critics believe this new rule will preclude the Yucca Mountain Project from ever opening.” PBS News Hour

Geologists are finding plenty of fault, or faults, with the selection of Yucca Mountain. There are 33 known faults near Yucca Mountain. About 600 seismic event have occurred near the site in the last 20 years alone, with a 5.6-magnitude earthquake occurring as recently as 1992. There is also evidence of relatively recent volcanic activity in the area. Senator Harry Reid, 2001

This nation needs a permanent solution to its massive nuclear waste storage problem. But even if Yucca Mountain were approved, it’s too small to accomodate our current volume of waste. We need another one. We have to find another site, we’d be smart to find one in a more stable tectonic environment, such as a stable craton.

Update, April 30, 2011:

For more comprehensive reading on this issue, here are two books:

The Road to Yucca Mountain: The Development of Radioactive Waste Policy in the United States University of California Press (2009) by J. Samual Walker, winner of the 2010 Organization of American Historians Richard W. Leopold Prize.

Uncertainty Underground: Yucca Mountain and the Nation’s High-Level Nuclear Waste MIT Press (2006) by Allison M. Macfarlane (Editor), Rodney C. Ewing (Editor).

Related Articles:

Department of Energy Environmental Impact Statements

Slow Train to Yucca Mountain – Mother Jones

Comments on the Department of Energy’s “Draft Environmental Impact Statement for a Geologic Repository for the Disposal of Spent Nuclear Fuel and High-Level Radioactive Waste at Yucca Mountain, Nye County, Nevada” – NIRS