A Sweeter Deal at Yucca Mountain

Perspectives

LUTHER J. CARTER

A Sweeter Deal at Yucca Mountain

Congress should approve the nuclear waste repository, but it needs to offer more substantial benefits to Nevada.

As this is written in the late winter of 2002, the stage is set for a struggle in Congress over whether to override the impending Nevada veto of President Bush’s selection of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste disposal site. The geologic repository that would be built there for spent fuel from nuclear reactors and for highly radioactive defense waste would be the first such facility anywhere in the world. The criticism and doubts raised about the president’s decision are cause enough–even for one long convinced that the place for the repository is Nevada–to wonder whether the Yucca Mountain project can be licensed and built.

Where I come out is, yes, the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives should overturn the Nevada veto. The accelerated procedures afforded by the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 proscribe the filibustering and other parliamentary tactics that otherwise might block this present chance for the greatest progress yet on a nuclear waste problem that has eluded solution for over three decades. But still confronting the project if the Nevada veto is overturned will be the multitudinous law suits that the state is bringing against it. Even if they fall short on the merits, these suits could raise to new levels Nevada’s bitterness toward the project, further intensify distrust of the site and how it was chosen, and delay for several years a licensing application to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. What is required of Congress in these circumstances is not just an override of the state veto but also major new amendments to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act strengthening the Yucca Mountain project financially, technically, and politically.

Congress must, above all, seek a dramatic reconciliation between Washington and the state of Nevada. The goal should be a greater spirit of trust, an end to the lawsuits, substantial direct and collateral economic benefits for Nevada, a stronger influence for the state in the Yucca Mountain project, and a stronger University of Nevada, the state’s proudest institution. A possibility to consider would be for congressional leaders to invite the Nevada delegation on Capitol Hill to join with them in a collaborative legislative effort to establish in Nevada a new national laboratory on nuclear waste management.

The Nevadans could look to their own inventiveness in any such initiative, aware of course that the final product will come about from much pulling and hauling from diverse quarters and diverse interests. Here we put forward a few possibilities that might go into the mix. Although the new laboratory would be created as a permanent institution with a broad mandate, central to that mandate in the beginning would be to take over direction of the Yucca Mountain project from the U.S. Department of Energy. Equipped with its own hot cells and other facilities for handling radioactive materials, the laboratory could assume a hands-on role in much of the high-end research and development work that is now done by project contractors. Its director, appointed by the president for a fixed term of, say, seven years, and removable only by the president, could be a far stronger administrator than the nuclear waste program has ever had before and one who is allowed wide latitude. Indeed, should the director come to conclude that not even with the best science and engineering can Yucca Mountain be made a workable site, the director could go to the president and the Congress and recommend its rejection in favor of finding another candidate site, whether in Nevada or elsewhere.

An advisory committee chaired by the Governor of Nevada would follow the laboratory’s work closely and be aided in this by a selective, well staffed group similar to the existing congressionally mandated, presidentially appointed Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board. Funding of the Yucca Mountain project and other activities under the Energy Department’s present Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management would continue to come from the Nuclear Waste Fund and the user fee on nuclear-generated electricity, but the new laboratory’s activities not covered by this dedicated funding would be dependent on other congressional appropriations.

Realistically, growth of the new lab would come, to one degree or another, at the expense of other national laboratories, particularly the existing nuclear weapons laboratories (Lawrence Livermore in California and Los Alamos and Sandia in New Mexico) where access for outside scientists and graduate students is severely constrained by their highly classified defense work. Creating the new lab would for some members of Congress be politically painful. But that would simply be part of the price for a successful Yucca Mountain project and, over the longer term, for new and more effective nuclear waste management initiatives across a much broader front.

Where would the new laboratory be located? At Yucca Mountain? In the vicinity of the University of Nevada’s home campus in Reno or near its new campus in Las Vegas? These would be delicate and important questions for Nevadans, but the new lab would surely bring new strength to the University in a variety of ways.

Of course, a great threshold question is whether there is any chance of Nevada’s political leaders actually doing an about-face and accepting a reconciliation allowing the Yucca Mountain project to go forward? It’s no sure thing, but consider the following: By the fall of 2002 Congress may already have overridden the Nevada veto, possibly by a comfortable margin. Also, the Nevada leaders will know that if their lawsuits should succeed only in delaying the project, the state’s leverage for gaining major concessions from Congress ultimately will either vanish or be sharply reduced. Furthermore, the University of Nevada and many businesses may see a national laboratory in the state starting or encouraging major new economic activities for Nevada, not just for nuclear waste isolation but also for other high tech work for government and private industry.

More money, more research

Financially, Congress could give both the project and the new national laboratory a major boost by designating the waste program as a mandatory account that is no longer to be denied half or more of the money collected each year from utility ratepayers in user fees on nuclear energy. In fiscal 2001 the fee revenue totaled $880 million. Moreover, an unexpended balance of nearly $12 billion has been allowed to pile up in the Nuclear Waste Fund in order to reduce the federal budget deficit. Congress must now forego this budgetary sleight of hand and ensure that the needs of the Yucca Mountain project are properly met.

Technically, Congress should have the project assume an exploratory thrust going far beyond anything now contemplated by DOE. It could in a general way urge the new Nevada laboratory to consider an innovative phased approach for testing current plans and exploring attractive technical alternatives. The licensing application might call for two or more experimental waste emplacement modules to confirm the engineering feasibility of project plans.

Project reviewers, who include many proponents of a phased approach to repository development, could help identify new possibilities worthy of a trial. For instance, scientists at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee favor a concept of enveloping spent fuel with depleted uranium within the waste containers. They see this concept as doubly attractive, affording both greater assurance of waste containment and safe disposal of much of the nation’s environmentally burdensome inventory of depleted uranium. Some 600,000 tons of depleted uranium sits outside in aging steel cylinders at the two inactive uranium enrichment plants at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Portsmouth, Ohio, and the still active plant at Paducah, Kentucky. A decay product of depleted uranium is the dangerously radioactive radium-226.

Depleted uranium dioxide in a granular form could be used to fill voids in the waste containers and also be embedded in steel plating to create a tough, dense layer nearly 10 inches thick just inside the containers’ thin corrosion-resistant outer shell. It would be meant to serve as a sacrificial material, grabbing off any oxygen entering the containers and delaying for many thousands of years degradation of the spent fuel.

Congress should have the project assume an exploratory thrust going far beyond anything now contemplated by DOE.

A number of close followers of the Yucca Mountain project, in Nevada and elsewhere, doubt that its weaknesses will ever be overcome. But in my view the problems are curable and the purported alternatives are either illusory or unacceptable. The default solution if geologic isolation of spent fuel and high-level waste fails is continued surface storage. In principle, this could involve beginning central storage in Nevada or elsewhere, but unfortunately what is far more likely is for storage to remain for many years at the some 131 sites in 39 states where the spent fuel and high-level waste are stored now. Indeed, the political effect of a congressional rejection of the project could be to freeze virtually all further movement of this material. With no Yucca Mountain project, there would be no foreseeable prospect of permanent disposal anywhere.

Fourteen years ago, Congress abandoned the effort to screen multiple candidate repository sites by enacting the NWPA Amendments of 1987. The narrowing of the search to Yucca Mountain was “political,” to be sure, but it was also sensible and practical viewed on the merits. The cost of “characterizing” sites, put at not more than $100 million per site in 1982, was soaring, although no one could then foresee that by 2002 characterization of the Yucca Mountain site alone would exceed $4 billion. Moreover, Yucca Mountain offered clear advantages compared to the other two sites still in the running. A repository at Hanford, Washington, in highly fractured lava rock was to have been built deep within a prolific aquifer, posing a high risk of catastrophic flooding. A repository in the bedded salt of Deaf Smith County, Texas, would have penetrated the Ogallala Aquifer, a resource of great political sensitivity in that very rich agricultural county.

A search for a second repository site in the eastern half of the United States was abruptly terminated by the Reagan administration in 1986 essentially because the political price had become too great. Four U.S. Senate seats were at stake in the seven states most targeted by this search and the Republican candidates were becoming increasingly imperiled. Today, few believe Congress will ever reopen the search for repository sites.

A stronger project

Managers of the Yucca Mountain project may have unwittingly set a trap for themselves by choosing to make the case for licensing by relying far less on the mountain’s natural hydrogeologic characteristics to contain radioactivity than on the engineered barriers that they propose. These barriers are principally an outer shell of nickel alloy for the massive spent-fuel and high-level waste containers, plus a titanium “drip shield” to go above the containers. The cost of the two together is put at $9.8 billion (year 2000 dollars).

Quantifying the effectiveness of a well-defined engineered barrier might at first appear easier than determining the effectiveness of a natural system that is mostly hidden inside the mountain and only partly understood. But in truth the uncertainties associated with the one may be every bit as great as those associated with the other. The corrosion resistance over thousands of years of the chosen alloy or any other manmade material is simply not known, and experts retained by Nevada can point to corrosion processes that might well compromise the proposed barriers.

Granted, the uncertainties as to waste containment associated with the natural system are significant. Into the early 1990s project managers felt sure that since the repository horizon is 800 feet above the water table, waste containers would stay dry for many thousands of years and thus be protected from corrosion. But there has since been evidence (albeit ambiguous and now under intense review) of a small amount of water infiltrating the mountain from the surface and reaching the repository level within several decades. Given the less arid climate expected in the future, somewhat more water could be present to infiltrate, although any flows of water reaching waste emplacement tunnels might simply go through fractures to deeper horizons without affecting waste containers. But an additional concern has to do with water contained within pores in the rock causing a high general humidity.

The U.S. Geological Survey has formally supported selection of Yucca Mountain for repository development, although with conditions. The Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board sees no reason for disqualifying the site but characterizes the technical work behind the project performance assessment as “weak to moderate.”

An unresolved design issue is whether to allow an emplacement density for heat-generating spent fuel that would raise the temperature of the rock near waste containers above the boiling point of water, a question that bears directly on the extent of the repository’s labyrinth of emplacement tunnels. In view of this and other unresolved issues, whether the project can meet its target of filing a licensing application by 2004 is hotly disputed. But a delay of a few years or possibly even longer might be desirable in any case, affording time for project plans to include test modules for innovative engineered barriers that could strengthen the case for licensing–and allowing time for new institutional arrangements to fall into place if a new national laboratory were to assume direction of the project.

To sum up, at this critical juncture in our long tormented quest for a spent-fuel and high-level waste repository, three things appear needed. First, an override by Congress of Nevada’s veto of the Yucca Mountain site. Next, amendments to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act to encourage a profound political reconciliation between Nevada and Washington and to make the repository project stronger financially and technically. Finally, an aggressively exploratory design effort to ensure a repository worthy of our confidence in the safe containment of radioactivity over the long period of hazard.


Luther J. Carter, a journalist based in Washington, D.C., is the author of Nuclear Imperatives and Public Trust: Dealing with Radioactive Waste (Resources for the Future, 1987). This essay will be included in Uncertainty Underground, edited by Allison MacFarlane and Rodney Ewing (MIT Press, forthcoming).