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Yucca Mountain: The USA’s Nuclear Dump

In terms of controversial topics, you’d do well to find a more contested subject than the disposal of nuclear waste. The spent nuclear fuel from all of those weapons stockpiled during the Cold War and waste generated from nuclear power stations needs to be stored somewhere as it cannot be safely disposed of. 

But the periods of time that we’re talking about here are simply staggering. The most dangerous, and long-lasting waste, could remain radioactive for up to a million years. Even low-level waste could take up 10,000 years – which is no doubt a difficult selling point for any residents living nearby to a proposed nuclear waste dump. 

The United States, as one of the two biggest producers of nuclear weapons, has an awful lot of nuclear waste that needs long-term storing and one proposed site lies roughly 130 km (80 miles) northwest of the Las Vegas Valley at a place called Yucca Mountain. 

The proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository was designed as a series of tunnels that would be able to accommodate large amounts of high-level nuclear waste but has faced withering attacks ever since the project was approved in 2002 with just about every conceivable group voicing their opposition. The project, which has already seen extensive excavation work, has been in limbo since 2011 when Federal funding ended, leaving nuclear waste to steadily build up across the country. 

Nuclear Waste Disposal

Nuclear waste disposal is a thorny subject and one with plenty of myths and hearsay. It’s not difficult to see why the fear of living anywhere near radiation is enough to make almost anybody explode at the merest hint of a nuclear waste repository. With stories of Chernobyl and Fukushima still fresh in the mind, it can be next to impossible to convince people that nuclear waste can be stored safely. 

But the storage of the waste is probably one of the safest parts of the entire operation. The greatest nuclear disasters have come not from storage or transportation, but rather natural disasters or human error.  

The question of whether we should even be using nuclear energy seems to have died down in recent decades as the destructive power of fossil fuels has become fully evident. If nuclear energy is here to stay, as it almost certainly is, the question shifts to the waste. 

Surprisingly – or perhaps not in fact – human thinking regarding how to dispose of nuclear waste hasn’t changed much over the years. The prevailing concept remains roughly the same; dig a big hole, throw it all in and cover it up. I’m being slightly facetious there, but not overly. Most low-level waste uses near-surface disposal, which as it sounds, means waste stored below ground, but still relatively close to the surface (usually in the tens of metres). This has been done in the Czech Republic, Finland, France, Japan, Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, UK, and the USA. 

However, storing high-level waste is quite a different matter. This needs to be stored much further down and here is where all of the problems lie. While numerous countries have explored the possibility and some have even selected sites, only Finland is nearing completion of its own deep geological disposal site. And I’ll elaborate on that a little late in the video.  

It’s estimated that 22,000 cubic metres (776,922 cubic ft) of high-level waste is currently awaiting storage across 14 western countries, while the amount in China and Russia remains unknown, but is generally considered substantial.  

What is clear is that we have absolutely no idea what we’re going to do with all of this waste in the long run. As of early 2020, there were 57 nuclear power plants in operation across the United States, totalling roughly 20% of the nation’s total energy output. These reactors produce around 2,000 tons worth of waste each year, and that’s on top of whatever comes from nuclear weapons. There is a lot of waste in desperate need of a long-term home. 

Waste Isolation Pilot Plant

Before we get on to Yucca Mountain, we should first talk about the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP). Located 42 km (26 miles) east of Carlsbad, New Mexico, the WIPP is the world’s third deep geological repository, after the radioactive waste Morsleben repository and the Schacht Asse II Salt Mine, both in Germany, and is licensed to store transuranic radioactive waste from the research and production of United States nuclear weapons for 10,000 years. All three of these sites can accommodate low-level or medium-waste, but not the most dangerous.

The waste is kept here in rooms 660 metres (2,150 ft) underground and is thought to have cost in the region of $19 billion. Now, remember when I said dig and hole and just throw the waste in? Well. that’s not quite the full extent of it here. Sometime between 2025 and 2035, when the plant reaches capacity, the caverns will be collapsed and sealed over with 13 layers of concrete and soil. And that, as they say, will be that. 

While the WIPP is a start for vast amounts of American nuclear waste, it’s nowhere nearly enough, which is why in the late 1970s the Department of Energy began exploring Yucca Mountain. 

Yucca Mountain

In 1978, Yucca Mountain joined a shortlist of ten sites across six different states that would potentially be able to accommodate 77,000 tons of nuclear waste by 2015. By 1985, that number had been whittled down to just three and President Reagon authorised extensive analysis of sites in Hanford, Washington; Deaf Smith County, Texas and Yucca Mountain. Two years later, Yucca Mountain was the last man standing. 

A tour group entering the North Portal of Yucca Mountain by Daniel Mayer is licensed under
CC-BY-SA

But even then, things were still a long way off. Initially, it had been hoped that Yucca Mountain could begin accepting nuclear waste in 1998, but that proved hopelessly optimistic. A long preliminary tunnel was dug within the mountain and countless scientific surveys have been carried out to determine the feasibility of turning the depths of this mountain into the most radioactive spot on the planet. 

On 23rd July 2002, President George W Bush officially gave the go-ahead for the project but it hit a political brick wall almost immediately. During the 2006 midterm elections, Harry Reid, a Nevada Senator and fierce opponent of the Yucca Mountain project became Senate Majority Leader and didn’t take long to voice his position on the proposed repository site, saying – “Yucca Mountain is dead. It’ll never happen.”

As the United States and the rest of the world collapsed into recession it seemed the appetite for such a project began to dry up. After stating on the campaign trail that he would effectively cancel the project if elected, President Obama was informed upon taking office that things were not quite that simple. 

He couldn’t simply cancel the project, but he could choose to not renew federal funding, which is exactly what he did in 2011. So really, almost nothing has happened regarding the Yucca Mountain repository in the last decade, except for the painfully high compensation the government has been paying to utility companies for not supplying a repository as promised. And the numbers here are quite extraordinary. The U.S government is currently paying these companies between $300 and $500 million per year to deal with their waste on their own accord. By 2025, it’s expected that the total figure will have reached $24 billion. 

Now, it might be easy to grumble about greedy corporations here, but the truth is, the U.S government stated legally that Yucca Mountain would begin accepting waste in 1998. Twenty-two years on, not only is that still not happening, that promise is costing a staggering amount of money.

The election of Donald Trump appeared to push the project back into favour, but his administration’s efforts stalled in the U.S Senate. Trump then appeared to switch sides by stating that he agreed with the people of Nevada and didn’t want the site as a dumping ground. But in 2018, things seemed to swing 180 degrees with his administration once again pushing for Yucca Mountain to be used. But yet again, efforts ran into a brick wall and by 2019 the entire project hung in political limbo.   

The Complex 

So we know that there isn’t any nuclear waste in the complex, but what exactly does lie within Yucca Mountain? The main tunnel inside the complex is U-shaped, 8 km (5 mi) (8.0 km) long and 7.6 m(25 ft ) wide. The tunnel was dug using a tunnel boring machine measuring 120 metres (400ft) in length and costing $13 million. Coming off the main tunnel are a series of alcoves where geological experiments took place. The emplacement drifts (tunnels coming off the main tunnel where the nuclear waste would have been stored) were never constructed.

This would have just been the start of the Yucca Mountain complex. The repository has a statutory limit of 77,000 tons of waste, but to reach this limit it would have needed roughly 64 km (40 miles) worth of tunnels – so they’re still pretty short there. 

Opposition

Where to start. Opposition for this project has been torrential from almost every corner. Consistent polls have shown that roughly two-thirds of those living in Nevada are against the repository. Or should I say they are against the repository in their own state. 

Concerns have been raised about the environmental impact, not necessarily now, but in thousands of years. The Department of Energy (DOE) has stated that for the first 10,000 years the mean public dose of radiation would be 0.24 mrem/year, which would rise to 0.98 mrem/year after, both levels well within national safety guidelines. To give you some good comparisons, a hip x-ray results in a dose around 83 mrem while a CT head or chest scan is roughly 1,110 mrem. And in fact, there is natural radiation all around us. It’s estimated that the average U.S citizen experiences background radiation of roughly 350 mrem without being anywhere near a nuclear facility. 

Then there was the question of scientific research. As early as 2005, doubts were raised about the falsification of some of the quality assurance documents on water infiltration. No significant proof was presented to back-up these claims and a series of white papers and further research certainly appeared to suggest that there had been no wrongdoing. In 2006, an independent group, Sandia National Laboratories, was brought in with the hope of calming the debate once and for all and delivering a clear and honest assessment. They did, but it didn’t work. Public opinion had hardened considerably on the subject and changing minds seemed virtually impossible at this stage.  

Another contentious issue was how to transport all of this nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain. A rail route was considered the most viable, either through the Caliente Corridor and the Mina Corridor which would have required the permission of the Department of Defence and the Walker River Paiute Tribe whose territory the line runs through. Road routes were also explored but it was generally agreed rail would be better. If you thought the idea of storing nuclear waste in a mountain was controversial, the idea of high-level waste trundling past homes on railways lines proved unpalatable for many. Even though an estimated 25,000 individual shipments of high-level waste have been made around the globe without any major incident. 

But let’s be honest, it has come down to politics and public opinion. Most people are vehemently against the project and any politician who doesn’t stand firmly against it is likely to see their dreams of a long political career cut short.   

The Finnish Repository

So we know that Yucca Mountain might never be a waste repository, but what about what is happening in that other great nuclear superpower – Finland. 

The information that Finland is leading the way in terms of waste repository might seem a little strange to some, but when you think about it they do tend to have a habit of getting their act together up in Scandinavia. Finland currently has 4 nuclear power stations generating 27% of Finnish electricity and like other countries around the world, they need to put their nuclear waste somewhere.

Olkiluoto Nuclear Power Plants 1 & 2 

And that somewhere is the Onkalo tunnel, a vast complex located 520 metres (1,710 ft) below the island of Olkiluoto, 230 km (143 miles) northwest of Helsinki. Started in 2004, the Onkalo Tunnel is now nearing completion and is expected to start receiving nuclear waste in 2023, where it will sit for an estimated period of 100,000 years. 

So for the rest of the world, this is how it’s done. 

Dead in Water?

Ok, back to Nevada. Positions are now so firmly entrenched that it seems unlikely that Yucca Mountain is going to be used as a nuclear waste repository anytime soon. But while Nevada locals might celebrate that fact, it still doesn’t solve the dilemma of what the hell to do with the more than 90,000 tons of nuclear waste currently held in temporary storage facilities across the country. 

This is a major problem that needs addressing sooner rather than later. As the world tried to wrestle itself away from fossil fuel addiction, nuclear energy is likely to play an even greater role in the future – whether we agree with it or not. 

Unless we suddenly find a miracle use for nuclear waste, the United States is going to need to find a long-term repository quickly. But let’s be perfectly honest, even if Yucca Mountain began taking waste tomorrow, it’s storage capacity is limited and it’s already less than the waste currently in the country. 

What is terrifying is that these decisions made now will have potential life-changing and even global-changing effects in thousands of years. To give you a good example of this, at the WIPP, which I mentioned earlier, they have designed special warning signs for future civilizations that might stumble across the waste dump. The signs include seven different languages, English, Spanish, Russian, French, Chinese, Arabic and Navajo with space for further translation into future languages. They also include pictures in case these languages can’t be understood, with The Scream from Edvard Munch’s painting, a seemingly appropriate choice. If you think about how quickly civilisations rise and fall (in terms of global history that is), it’s perfectly conceivable that the world may have changed to such a degree that this spot might not even be considered the United States anymore. Or maybe we’ve destroyed the world and reverted to living in caves once again. It certainly makes you think about the actions we take and their future consequences. 

The squabbling over where to put this waste shows just how short term humans can think. The fact that we have been using nuclear power for so many years and still can’t come to a consensus of what to do with the waste speaks volumes about just how muddled this topic has become around the world – except in Finland apparently. Nuclear waste is a headache that is not going to go away anytime soon. And as for Yucca Mountain, well, it looks like that is just going to stay a mountain.  

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