Spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste have been accumulating in the United States for nearly 60 years, when nuclear materials were first used to produce electricity and to develop nuclear weapons. Waste that was planned for disposal at the Yucca Mountain storage facility in Nevada resides instead in temporary storage at 121 sites in 39 states.
After decades of scientific study, it is clear no legitimate safety issues preclude opening Yucca Mountain for the storage of spent nuclear fuel.
Broad Yucca Mountain Support
Congress in 1987 directed the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to study Yucca Mountain, Nevada for the feasibility of constructing a deep underground geologic repository for nuclear waste. DOE made favorable findings regarding the proposed site, and Congress in 2002 approved construction of a permanent nuclear waste repository under Yucca Mountain.
In June 2008 DOE submitted an application to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a license to construct a repository at Yucca Mountain. With this application the DOE’s Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management moved forward in meeting its congressionally mandated directive to develop, build, and operate a deep underground facility that will safely isolate spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste for hundreds of thousands of years to come.
The license application is the culmination of more than two decades of expert scientific research and engineering by more than 2,000 scientists and engineers working at government and university laboratories.
No Reuse of Fuel Pellets
Nuclear fuel has been used in 104 nuclear power plants in the United States and nearly 200 of the nation’s nuclear naval vessels. The fuel is solid, in the form of ceramic/uranium pellets the size of a pencil eraser. Commercial nuclear power plants generate electricity through the controlled use of nuclear fission (splitting) inside sealed metal tubes or rods filled with these pellets. The heat released in this process creates steam that drives turbines to generate electricity.
After a few years in a reactor, the uranium pellets in the fuel assembly are no longer efficient for producing electricity. At this point the used, or “spent,” fuel assembly is removed from the reactor and placed in a pool of water to cool.
In most other countries where nuclear power is generated, these fuel rods are chemically reprocessed for additional use. In the United States, however, President Jimmy Carter outlawed this procedure in 1977. Although President Ronald Reagan rescinded Carter’s executive order, no power plants in the nation have initiated such a recycling program.
Thus, without a central disposal site, our 60 years of nuclear waste remains in on-site water pools or sealed above-ground in metal canisters within concrete bunkers.
The Yucca Mountain site is located in a very dry and remote area of the Mojave Desert in Nye County, Nevada, roughly 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas. The site is on land controlled by the federal government and isolated from human population and activities.
The mountain itself is formed of nonporous volcanic rock in an area receiving only 7.5 inches of precipitation a year. The water table lies as much as 2,000 feet below the surface and is part of the Death Valley closed-hydrologic system, unconnected to either Las Vegas or any other significant population center.
This means even if radioactive particles were to escape from Yucca Mountain at some time, they would be isolated from any water supplies outside the Death Valley basin.
Moreover, the likelihood of radioactive particles ever reaching even the closed Death Valley hydrologic system is extremely remote. The waste itself would be sealed in strong, redundant, high-technology containment canisters. If radioactive waste were to escape those canisters, thick, impermeable rock layers limit the ability of water to penetrate into, or radioactive particles to escape from, the repository.
Additionally, as already noted, the closed hydrological system water table lies a full 2,000 feet below the surface. With very little water available to start with, the Yucca Mountain repository’s natural features significantly limit the amount of moisture that can infiltrate below its surface. At most locations within the mountain, it would take thousands of years for the small amounts of water that can infiltrate the surface to reach the level of the repository.
In addition, many redundant methods will be engineered into the repository to ensure nothing will ever escape. I’ll outline those measures next month.
Jay Lehr, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is science director of The Heartland Institute.