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Geologic Column
Mount Everest, Nevada
Fred Schwab

My mom had it right when she said, "Before you start anything else, you have to clean up your mess!" The United States entered the nuclear age more than a half-century ago, but we haven't resolved what to do with nuclear waste. Closing down conventional fission-based nuclear power plants, reprocessing used fuel or even expanding our nuclear power capacity are unrealistic options until and unless we clean up after ourselves.

The Bush administration has proposed adding 50 new nuclear reactors by 2020. Currently, the nation's roughly 100 operating nuclear power plants produce 20 percent of our electricity (8 percent of our total energy consumption). France obtains 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear generators, and French oil consumption is 10 percent lower than three decades ago. U.S. oil consumption is 16 percent higher.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), cited in the Sept. 27 USA Today, calculates that one-third of global greenhouse gas production is from electrical power production. Power generated by nuclear plants cuts annual carbon emissions by 600 million tons, about twice what the Kyoto agreement is designed to save. The United States currently accounts for 23 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, with China close behind.

Nuclear fusion reactors conceivably will be able to generate almost unlimited energy with no greenhouse gases or long-lived high-level radioactive waste, but the technology probably will not become feasible for decades, if ever. But the waste generated by nuclear plants in the United States already is high — more than 30,000 metric tons of spent fuel rods, increasing by 6 tons per day. This waste is temporarily stored in water-filled basins, steel containers and on concrete pads at or close to the sites where they are produced. The entire batch would almost fill Yankee Stadium (not a viable option unless you are an avid Red Sox fan).

U.S. Cold War efforts produced another 400,000 cubic meters of high level radioactive waste, a byproduct of manufacturing plutonium for nuclear weapons. Largely in liquid form, it is also temporarily stored, kept in huge aging tanks at government sites in Washington, New York, South Carolina and Idaho, among other states. It could be permanently stored in an area smaller than Central Park (also probably not a sensible option).

Collectively, this nuclear waste is stored across about 40 states within 120 kilometers of 160 million people, almost two-thirds of our total population. Patrick Bailey, president of the Institute for New Energy, argues in a chapter about nuclear waste in The World's 20 Greatest Unsolved Problems that "the problem is not about how to store the waste — the problem is in the willingness to get the waste stored."

Two decades of analysis and more than $5 billion have narrowed the choice of a permanent nuclear waste repository to two sites: NIMBY ("not in my backyard") and Yucca Mountain, which is 160 kilometers northwest of Las Vegas, Nev. (with a population approaching 2 million people). This uninspiring 2,045-meter ridge in west-central Nevada has gradually taken on Everest-like proportions.

The area surrounding Yucca has been fairly stable seismically and volcanically for the past several million years. The probability of either moderate earthquakes or eruptions for the next 10,000 years is very low. The slightly deformed stratigraphic unit underlying Yucca Mountain destined to house all the waste — the 8-million-year-old Paintbrush Welded Tuff — has very low porosity and permeability. The region has exceedingly low precipitation, and the hydrologic setting is almost ideal, with one of the deepest water tables known (700 meters). A 60- to 80-kilometer grid of tunnels is to be drilled through the mountain core and the waste housed in hermetically sealed containers.

But legal barriers to this permanent storage site continue to crop up (see New York Times, Aug. 23, "Roadblock at Yucca Mountain" and Geotimes, October, 2004, "Energy Issues Take Center Stage in Senate Races"). A three-judge panel threw out a previously agreed upon standard that any permanent repository safely contain all wastes for 10,000 years, lengthening the time to hundreds of thousands of years.

Congress unfortunately paved the way for this roadblock in 1992, when it passed a law requiring a repository time standard that complied with recommendations of the National Academy of Sciences. The New York Times described that standard as "so outlandishly stringent it may not be achievable." Additional serious objections have arisen over how nuclear waste is to be transported safely and securely from disparate sites around the country to Nevada.

The bottom line is that the public, outside of Nevada, has not been seriously involved in considering nuclear issues. In the 2004 election campaign, most voters spent far more time examining decades-old Swift Boat battle actions and who served where and when in the National Guard during the Vietnam War than our nuclear legacy. Only Nevada residents seemed fully and honestly rather than philosophically engaged in this debate. After all, the New York Times editorial offices are about 4,000 kilometers from Yucca Mountain.

And now, the election is over. Nevada reelected Sen. Harry Reid, a Democrat who like most Nevada politicians strongly opposes using Yucca Mountain as the nation's nuclear repository. At the same time, newly reelected President Bush has reaffirmed Yucca Mountain as the permanent repository, Congress has yet to fully fund the project, and lawsuits and licensing challenges continue to delay it (see Geotimes Web Extra, Dec. 6, "Yucca on Hold").

While the country delays making a decision without serious science-based debate, nuclear waste accumulates daily. After attending many of the roughly three dozen talks on the geologic disposal of radioactive waste at the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America last fall, I'm now convinced that enough reliable, robust science has been done to provide the solid data on which such an important decision must be based. It's time to collectively bite the bullet and proceed.

Schwab is a professor of geology at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., and a corresponding editor for Geotimes. E-mail:


"Energy Issues Take Center Stage in Senate Races," Geotimes, October 2004
"Yucca on Hold," Geotimes Web Extra, Dec. 6, 2004

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