22 October 2012

Romney on Yucca Mountain: Let Nevada Decide

Posted by John Freeland

On the topic of nuclear waste disposal, it appears Mitt Romney is at odds with his running mate and other Republicans who want to re-open the permit process for the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository.

Here are remarks from Governor Romney speaking in Nevada:

“The idea that 49 states can tell Nevada, ‘We want to give you our nuclear waste,’ doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Romney said. “I think the people of Nevada ought to have the final say as to whether they want that, and my guess is that for them to say yes to something like that, someone’s going to have to offer them a pretty good deal, as opposed to having the federal government jam it down their throat.”

“And by the way, if Nevada says, ‘Look, we don’t want it,’ then let other states make bids and say, ‘Hey, look, we’ll take it,’” Romney continued. “‘Here’s a geological site that we’ve evaluated. Here’s the compensation we want for taking it. We want you electric companies around the country that are using nuclear fuel to compensate us a certain amount per kilowatt hour, a certain amount per ton of this stuff that comes.’”

There are at least three problems with this approach, in my view:

1. Long-term toxicity of nuclear waste. The National Academy of Sciences isolation standard, which the EPA is required to adopt, is upwards of 1 million years. If the current generation of Nevadans, plied sufficiently with a “pretty good deal”, decided they wanted the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste facility, would the next generation, or any of the thousands of future generations of Nevadans, feeling like they got a raw deal, have the option to get rid of it? Will they have the power to re-negotiate the deal? How much money will it take to keep all of those future Nevadans satisfied?

2. Lack of “bidders.” It’s been two years since the Obama Administration ended the permit application process for Yucca Mountain. Have any other states come forward and volunteered to take its place? I haven’t heard of any.

3. In Romney’s “market” approach, what role would science play in the selection process? Would science have the power, for example, to over-rule a poor state willing to accept significant risk for cash? What scientific agencies would make the assessment? From Romney’s remarks: “let other states make bids and say, “Hey, look, we’ll take it…Here’s a geological site that we’ve evaluated. Here’s the compensation we want for taking it,” it sounds like he wants states to run the engineering and environmental assessments. Is that feasible?

Representative Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat addressing the selection of Yucca Mountain in 1987 said, “This country’s in trouble as long as political buy-offs are relied on rather than good science.”

“Good science,” completing a thorough alternative analysis would likely locate the permanent nuclear waste dump somewhere on the stable North American Craton, rather than on the more tectonically active “deformed craton” at Yucca Mountain.

Side Note: Alex Berezow recently talked about his new book, Science Left Behind: Feel-Good Fallacies and the Rise of the Anti-Scientific Left, on C-SPAN. A common fallacy, apparently shared by Berezow, is that the Yucca Mountain repository is completed and ready to receive nuclear waste. It is not. The emplacement drifts, tunnels that store the waste, have not been built and require a pre-construction license from the NRC. Even if the decision to end the permit process were reversed and Yucca Mountain received its NRC license, it would be years away from opening.