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).
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
Yucca Mountain has been evaluated for more than 25 years by thousands of scientists and engineers and their work is documented in thousands of technical documents. All of “technical problems” raised in this article have been addressed. Yucca Mountain has been found suitable for a repository under all governing regulations and laws and the information documenting this is published in the License Application, available for review at: http://www.nrc.gov/waste/hlw-disposal/yucca-lic-app.html
John Freeland has it right. In the now nearly dormant Nuclear Regulatory Commission licensing proceeding for Yucca Mountain, the State of Nevada and other parties have nearly 300 admitted contentions, largely on technical issues, awaiting litigation. The fractured geology of Yucca Mountain is incapable of isolating the nuclear waste, and the plan relies on billions of dollars worth of titanium “drip shields” to be installed 100 years after the waste is emplaced, by robots to protect against infiltrating water corroding the waste packages and releasing radionuclides to the groundwater. Based on information in the license application, if the 11,500 “drip shields” were not installed, or improperly installed, the EPA radiation protection standard for Yucca Mountain would be exceeded in about 750 years. This is not geologic isolation of a waste that has a hazardous lifetime of tens to hundreds of thousands of years.
The Yucca Mountain repository is not built and waiting for nuclear waste. A five mile exploratory tunnel exists, but the repository for 70,000 metric tons of waste would require nearly fifty miles of yet-to-be excavated tunnels (drifts) for waste emplacement.
I saw the report and wondered at the time whether CNN had learned any lessons about being “embedded.”
Gee, let’s be clear about this are you aware that the funding for Yucca mtnaouin came from a tax on every Kw of power sold to the end customer for the purpose of locating and building a waste repository how about that? Most people are not aware that all the funding has come from Nuclear Power Operators, and the DOE/Federal Government involvement has been as program managers, whereby they get use of the repository for the nasty nuclear pookie they the government has created by their bomb making research and development. So did Chu have the authority to kill Yucca Mountain in Nevada No and if I was a nuclear power customer, I would be demanding a refund for the 30-40 years the tax was collected. Another note is the science was completed on Yucca Mountain and the Licensing/Operating permit were submitted to the NRC, but pulled by this administration (I am sure Harry Reid had something to do with that).
Mr. Frishman’s claim that “…the EPA radiation protection standard for Yucca Mountain would be exceeded in about 750 years.” is ludicrous and apparently based upon science fantasy.
Even without the drip shields for that to occur: sufficient water would have to infiltrate through the mountain, reach the repository horizon hundreds of meters below the land surface, dissolve the waste package sufficiently to allow the water enter and to contact the waste form, dissolve the waste form, dissolve the waste package sufficiently to allow the radionuclides to escape, the radionuclides in the water would then have to percolate through more layers of unsaturated tuff, reach the water table, and be conveyed 18 kilometers to the accessible environment by advective transport. All of this supposedly occurs in a desert environment with ~6 inches of rainfall per year, most of which runs off of the mountain. Mr. Frishman needs to answer one question: where does all the water come from to dissolve all of the waste packages and waste?
This hydrogeologic study by Lehman & Associates (http://www.state.nv.us/nucwaste/yucca/lehman01.htm) found “significant correlation” between precipitation and groundwater levels in test wells, so there’s infiltration happening sometime, somewhere nearby. The most interesting part of the study, to me, is the link between hydrogeology and tectonics. Saturated flow at Yucca Mountain is apparently controlled by a network of interconnected faults and fractures, not the tuff matrix, and potentially rapid.
To answer “Blorg’s” question “where does all the water come from…?”, it’s there. There is enough precipitation and groundwater migration in the vicinity to make groundwater an issue at Yucca Mountain.
Lehman also pointed out some drastic changes in groundwater levels in response to earthquakes, one of which was 12 miles away from Yucca Mountain in 1992.
“Based upon the previous analyses, several findings regarding the saturated zone flow system at Yucca Mountain have been made:
1) A complex conceptual model of the saturated zone flow system is required to adequately define the system. The potential for fault/fracture zones to transmit groundwater rapidly and transport contaminants with minimal dispersion and absorption is high.
2) Saturated zone flow is likely compartmentalized, fault controlled, and dynamic. Predictions of future flow rates, volumes, and velocities within an active tectonic environment that meet the required regulatory assurance of confidence are not likely.”
Neither of these responses address, in any manner, where sufficient water will be found passing through the unsaturated zone via infiltration and percolation at Yucca Mountain to dissolve the canisters and waste and transport the waste to the accessible environment in the short time period asserted.
Mr. Frishman makes an unsubstantiated claim that “it is possible to use the model results to determine the dose vs time curve for the case where there are no drip shields”. Please elucidate, do not leave the proof as an exercise for the reader. Provide citations as needed. And please explain where the water comes from in the unsaturated zone for all of that dissolution and transport in 750 years.
Mr. Freeland asserts that groundwater is an issue and discusses saturated zone flow. While important to overall potential radionuclide transport, saturated zone flow will not impact dissolution at the repository and transport through the unsaturated zone. Work by Lehman and Brown has been reviewed and evaluated by the DOE (see Section 3.8.2 of “Saturated Zone Flow and Transport Process Model Report” available in ADAMS on the NRC web site at accession number ML003774387) and such alternative models of saturated zone flow were considered in the Total System Performance Assessment Model.
My “science fantasy” to which “Blorg” refers comes directly from the Total System Performance Assessment (TSPA) that DOE uses in its License Application for Yucca Mountain, as required by regulation. Taking DOE’s drip shield failure parameter that is incorporated in the model, it is possible to use the model results to determine the dose vs time curve for the case where there are no drip shields. This provides the result in my earlier comment. The TSPA model includes DOE’s infiltration model that may be a fantasy, but its DOE’s, not mine. A number of the admitted contentions challenge the DOE infiltration model for showing too little water impacting the repository, not too much.
I don’t think Blorg has much understanding about groundwater in that environment, and how it moves through a system. 10,000 years is already admitted to be too short a time for measuring the safe isolation of the waste, but think about that parameter. Even if there is no climate change that increases rainfall (and it clearly is in a geologic dry phase – plenty of evidence of significantly wetter conditions during the recent ice age; it is error to assume such dryness will be persistent), that is a lot of water dropping on the system over 10,000 years (a vertical mile of water). Contrary to what Blorg thinks, nearly all of that water sinks into the ground in that desert environment. There is next to no surface discharge. Desert soils are slow to absorb water, but not that much is being dropped when it rains, and it is easily absorbed. You do not get active watercourses carrying away water during the rainy season – the only active watercourses in that general area are from spring snow melt. The one exception is summer thunderstorm activity, which is only a small fraction of the overall rainfall (it is a lot where it hits, but the frequency that a particular spot gets a thunderstorm downpour in any one year is very low). The noticable water features on the landscape are largely the result of these rare flash flood downpours – not the regular discharge of annual rainfall.
The water seeps through the structures in the myriad of existing cracks. There are natural springs in the area as evidence of water moving in the structure. There is zero evidence that Yucca Mountain is somehow impermeable to this normal percolation process. The area is not tectonically stable over long periods, and has numerous resulting fractures that percolating water follows. Those will continue to develop over time. It does not take a significant fault to create paths for groundwater to move through the structure. That is the nature of Basin and Range geology. There is a reason why very expensive drip shields were part of the model – percolating groundwater is expected to be a problem.
The idea that there is no risk from percolating water over the time needed to maintain safe storage is not supported.
The unsaturated zone hydrology of Yucca Mountain is different from that stated by dmbeaster. As a mountain with a thin soil covering, most precipitation runs off of it as stream flow or overland flow, or is lost through evapotranspiration. With a maximum elevation of about 5000 feet, it rarely gets significant snowfall. All of this is documented in Chapter 2 of the License Application Site Analysis Report.
There are no springs at Yucca Mountain at the repository location. As dmbeaster states that: “There are natural springs in the area as evidence of water moving in the structure.” I would appreciate if dmbeaster would clarify this statement by describing the closest location of a spring to Yucca Mountain.
Contrary to dmbeaster’s comment, I never stated that “There is zero evidence that Yucca Mountain is somehow impermeable to this normal percolation process.” This is a red herring. There is infiltration at Yucca Mountain and there is percolation at Yucca Mountain, these are small amounts of water (Chapter 2 of the License Application Site Analysis Report). As for the statement, “The idea that there is no risk from percolating water over the time needed to maintain safe storage is not supported.” This is another red herring. I wrote nothing like this. However, the risk from percolating water over the time needed to maintain safe storage at Yucca Mountain has been evaluated in the License Application and the site has been determined to be suitable in the License Application under the governing regulations.
I have pointed out that is not sufficient water passing through Yucca Mountain to support the claim made by Mr. Frishman that “…the EPA radiation protection standard for Yucca Mountain would be exceeded in about 750 years.”
So once again, where does sufficient water come from to support Mr. Frishman’s contention regarding 750 years?
No expert here but it seems to me that finding a way to turn the waste product into prime product would be a better way to deal with this problem. Recycling the waste instead of dumping it into a high/low risk(who knows) landfill seems like a better public policy objective.
Recycling the spent nuclear fuel from nuclear power plants is a potential option. The French do it with their spent fuel. However, current law mandates disposal of spent fuel with retrievability for 100 years. Even with recycling of spent fuel from nuclear power reactors, there would still be waste that would need disposal: waste from the recycling as well as waste from defense projects dating back to the 1940s from nuclear bomb development, nuclear reactor development, and defense waste from nuclear powered naval vessels.
When I started in the steel mill, we dumped our platting waste into the river, overtime they started treating it but still dumped the sludge into a landfill. Now they get paid a pile for that same muck by some outfit that found a way to gain a higher margin from the muck than what extracting raw ore pays. Anything that is spitting off gamma rays has to have a market, some how- some place, if we are spending money to stash this waste then we need to spend money coming up with a way to stash less.
Dumb laws are what the are and can be changed.
As a mountain with a thin soil covering, most precipitation runs off of it as stream flow or overland flow, or is lost through evapotranspiration.
This is simply untrue, as anyone who actually has spent time in that area knows. Most of the rain falls in the winter – December and January mostly. It is very light rain usually, in cold and cloudy conditions. The rain is never great enough to create stream or overland flow, or a very very minor flow at best in periods of the “heaviest” rain. Temperatures when these rains occur are in the 40s and 50s, with cloud cover.
There is very little, if any, evapotranspiration in the study area. That phenomena requires a shallow water table for the most part, which does not exist for obvious reasons near the site. The rain percolates in the mountain and downward for the most part.
There are significant springs south of the study area in the Ash Meadows NWR, which reflect the percolation of groundwater from the higher areas surrounding the NWR (incl Yucca Mtn) to the low lying basin where the NWR is located.
Essentially all of the water that falls on Yucca Mountain seeps in and migrates through the ground structure to the underlying saturation zone, and some discharges on the surface in the Ash Meadow NWR in the springs located there. There is next to no stream flow – and rarely any visible water on the surface at all times. As I stated before, surface flow features are the result of rare and dramatic flash floods in the summer, but do not reflect how most of the water moves in that system.
It is humorous that you parrot how everything is fine, but then show such basic ignorance about the water issues.
The phenomenon of evapotranspiration does not require a shallow water table. Since the 1950s, regional studies have recognized the effects of evapotranspiration. As Maxey and Eakin (1949) noted in their seminal study of Great Basin hydrogeology: “Most of the precipitation is lost by evaporation and transpiration before it percolates into the ground-water reservoir.” Using the Maxey-Eakin method (see page 40 of their report) of estimating recharge as a percentage of precipitation suggests that for annual precipitation greater than 20 inches, 25% would become recharge; for precipitation from 15 to 20 inches, 15% would become recharge; for precipitation from 12 to 15 inches, 7% would become recharge; for precipitation from 8 to 12 inches, 3% would become recharge; and for precipitation less than 8 inches, 0% would become recharge.
The Maxey-Eakin method is still used today, throughout Nevada especially by the State Engineer to evaluate and appropriate ground-water resources in various basins (see: http://water.nv.gov/home/publications/recon/ )
However, site specific studies at Yucca Mountain have indicated that the infiltration though the mountain is greater than the 0% that Maxey-Eakin would suggest and that the value is less than 5% of precipitation.
Ash Meadows is approximately 50 km southeast of Yucca Mountain and is in a different groundwater flow system from Yucca Mountain (the terminus of the Ash Meadows ground water basin). As you wrote that “There are natural springs in the area as evidence of water moving in the structure.” these springs do not appear relevant to Yucca Mountain.
Maxey, G.B. and Eakin, T.E. 1949. Ground Water in White River Valley, White Pine, Nye, and Lincoln Counties, Nevada. Water Resources Bulletin No. 8. Carson City, Nevada: State of Nevada, Office of the State Engineer.
Here’s an interesting paper:
Yucca Mountain: Science, Uncertainty and Political Gridlock. 2006. Nick Larowe and Ryan Meyer, Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes.
Talking about how issues have shifted throughout the nuclear waste storage debate, one shift went from “dry is good” to “dry is irrelevant,” once evidence of leaching was found at Yucca Mountain.
“Dry is Good
Of all the assumptions about the scientific basis for a good repository site, the oldest, most central has been that of water flux. This idea first emerged in a 1957 National Research Council Report produced by a group of geophysicists and geologists who (with the caveat that far more research was needed) recommended disposal of radioactive waste in salt deposits because “no water can pass through salt. Fractures are self sealing” (NRC 1957, p. 4).3 Despite the many social, political and scientific concerns that are also quite important in questions of waste storage, the framing of a good repository as one that can stay dry has occupied the attention of scientists, politicians and evaluators ever since.4
“Despite the fact that Vieth (Director of Nevada Waste Management Project Office) could not conceive of a major change in the science (which would disqualify Yucca Mtn), sampling in the newly excavated Exploratory Studies Facility revealed traces of 36Cl (Cl-36 radioisotope), or “the bomb pulse,” indicating that at least some water might travel from surface to repository at a speed orders of magnitude greater than had been previously predicted.
“t is important to note that the irresponsible part of a statement like the one by Vieth, a respected scientist on the project, was his brash over-confidence, not the reporting of wrong results. Indeed, scientific ideas, especially those about natural processes occurring in open systems, often change in light of new information. However, scientists should recognize this ever-present possibility and present their results accordingly. Vieth did not.
“There is no reason to believe that the methods leading to the results were particularly “bad science.”5 However, the assertion that nothing could change the situation is simply unscientific and obviously driven by an incentive to see Yucca Mountain approved as the nation’s nuclear waste repository.”
“Dry is… irrelevant?
The revelation that Yucca Mountain may not be so dry, or at least that local hydrology was not very well understood, forced a re-thinking of repository design and the balance between geological and engineered barriers. Glossing over the blow dealt to earlier flux estimates by the 36Cl data, an Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management (OCRWM) report notes that “testing of [the Exploratory Studies Facility] has led to substantially increased knowledge and understanding of the rock properties and hydrologic characteristics of the geologic formation in which the repository would be constructed” (OCRWM 1998). This is true, but it has also led to a completely new basis on which to justify siting the repository at Yucca Mountain – a shift which, to some, suggests political, non-scientific motives for keeping the repository there.
The new strategy, announced by DOE in 1996, combines various models and measures of natural and engineered repository elements into a single model (discussed below) (OCRWM 1998). The use of a more comprehensive approach to ensuring repository safety might seem more robust, but to opponents of Yucca Mountain it is sheer hypocrisy.”
The new model referred to is called the Total System Performance Assessment (TSPA), which evaluates engineered isolation and containment, including drip shields and containers, not geologic isolation as originally called for.
I’m not sure what your point is.
You cite paragraphs out of an unpublished, draft report. These authors apparently don’t believe in fact checking or accuracy, as their first paragraph contains a statement that Yucca Mountain is about 75 miles north of Nevada. Such glaring errors don’t lend people much credence.
You seem to be claiming based on this article that isolation at Yucca Mountain was supposed to be based only on geologic isolation. I’d suggest that you read The Nuclear Waste Policy Act (available at: http://www.epa.gov/regulations/laws/nwpa.html ) which is the governing law and has been in effect since 1982. It clearly states:
“(3) based upon the principle that the high-level radioactive waste, spent nuclear fuel, or other radioactive material involved shall be isolated from the biosphere in such a way that the initial isolation is provided by engineered barriers functioning as a system with the geologic environment.”
Note that it calls for engineered barriers. What’s the problem?