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Yucca Mountain redux via Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

The Republican takeover of the Senate and consequent sidelining of the Democratic majority leader, Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, will undoubtedly increase calls for reviving the Energy Department’s proposed nuclear waste repository at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain. The project got a big boost from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) staff when it recently concluded that the Energy Department has “demonstrated compliance with NRC regulatory requirements” limiting long-term radioactive leakage from the proposed repository. This result produced headlines like this one, which ran in the New York Times in October: “Calls to use Yucca Mountain as a nuclear waste site, now deemed safe.”

US Rep. John M. Shimkus, Republican of Illinois, said, “Today’s report confirms what we’ve expected all along: Nuclear waste stored under that mountain, in that desert, surrounded by federal land, will be safe and secure for at least a million years.” But the hosannas are premature. The NRC staff did not explain, and no one in the media seems to have caught on, that its favorable conclusion reflected the Energy Department’s pie-in-the-sky design for Yucca Mountain—not the repository as it is likely to be configured. The likely repository configuration doesn’t come close to meeting NRC requirements.

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Realistically, a century into the project, the underground tunnels would have deteriorated considerably and collapsed in part. Dust would sharply limit visibility. The tunnels would have to be cleared of rubble for a remotely operated underground rail system to transport robotic equipment and the five-ton drip shields to the waste canisters. The shields would then have to be installed end-to-end, so as to form a continuous metal cover inside the tunnels, obviously a delicate, complex, and extremely expensive operation. Is it reasonable to believe that after 100 years, with the nuclear waste in the repository long out of the public mind, that Congress would appropriate enormous sums of money for the Energy Department to go back into the tunnels to install the shields? Can we really rely on an agency that hasn’t yet cleaned up a nationwide radioactive mess that dates from World War II to keep a promise that it will do something a century into the future? Will there even be an Energy Department in 100 years?

Naturally, because it would be fatal to the project, the Energy Department does not display a computer simulation that shows what happens at Yucca Mountain without drip shields. More surprising, the NRC has not asked for such a simulation. The result for the no-drip-shield situation can, however, be extrapolated from simulations that the Energy Department has run for other contingencies. The former head scientist for the Yucca Mountain project confirmed to me in 2008 that the extrapolation result obtained in this way is correct. (Disclosure: I was then working for the State of Nevada, which of course opposed the project.) The Energy Department argued, however, that such a calculation was irrelevant, because the NRC cannot, in its review of the Yucca Mountain project, look past the promise of its “sister agency” that it would install the crucial drip shields. That argument seems to have worked in keeping simulations of the behavior of a no-drip-shield Yucca Mountain out of NRC proceedings, and out of the public eye.

Continue reading at Yucca Mountain redux

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