Greenhouse Gasses, Nuclear Waste, and Backroom Politics

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Is cancelling the Yucca Mt. Nuclear Waste Repository the most egregious act of backroom politics by this administration?   You decide.

Main Points

  • We have been studying where and how to permanently store nuclear waste for over 50 years, including Yucca Mt. specifically for over 40 years.  We have the technical answers.
  • Temporary storage of nuclear waste is clearly inferior to permanent geologic storage.
  • If Harry Reid were not Senate Majority Leader, America would be moving forward with a permanent geologic repository for nuclear waste.
  • Giving our Grandchildren reliable, non-greenhouse gas producing energy is critical to giving them a better world.

History/Timeline

  • 1957 – National Academy of Science recommends Geologic Repository for long-term disposal of spent nuclear fuel and high level nuclear waste (SF/HLW).
  • 1978 – U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) begins study of Yucca Mt. as a potential site for a permanent repository of SF/HLW.
  • 1982 – U.S. Congress passes the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA) directing DOE to identify and establish a suitable permanent repository for SF/HLW.
  • 1984 – DOE selects ten sites in six states for further consideration as repository sites.
  • 1985 –  President Regan approves further study on three of those sites: Yucca Mt., Nevada; Hanford, Washington; Deaf Smith Co., Texas.
  • 1987 – Congress amends the NWPA directing DOE to narrow the study to only Yucca Mt., which is located within the Nevada [nuclear weapons] Test Site (NTS).  The amendment includes language that if Yucca Mt. is found technologically unsuitable, study and development of the Yucca Mt. site will be discontinued.  It also includes language that DOE will begin accepting civilian spent fuel at Yucca Mt. in 1998.
  • 2002 – President Bush signs House Joint Resolution 87 (Pub. L. 107-200) allowing DOE to continue forward with development of the Yucca Mt. Repository Site.
  • 2006 – Harry Reid (Nevada) becomes Senate Majority Leader and declares, “Yucca Mt. is dead.  It’ll never happen.”
  • 2006 – DOE office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management reaffirms the technical soundness of the Yucca Mt. data.  Additionally, the U.S. Senate Committee on Environmental and Public Works issues a 25-page white paper, “Yucca Mountain: The Most Studied Real Estate on the Planet,” concluding that the U.S. should move forward on Yucca Mt.
  • 2008 – Candidate Obama tells Nevada voters that if elected he will abandon the Yucca Mt. site.
  • 2009 – President Obama makes good on his campaign commitment to Nevada. DOE Secretary Chu declares that Yucca Mt. is no longer an option; the problem needs additional study.
  • 2010 – DOE files a motion with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to withdraw the request for a license.  Several states, counties, and private groups file suits against DOE.

The Technical Argument FOR Yucca Mt.

Per the above white paper:

  • Yucca Mt. is a sound site for nuclear waste. [see Yucca Mt. below]
  • The cost of starting over will be extremely high. [> $9 Billion spent on Yucca Mt.]
  • Nuclear Waste disposal capability is an environmental imperative. [see Fukushima below]
  • Nuclear Waste disposal capability supports national security. [see Terrorism below]
  • Demand [potentially] for new nuclear plants demands disposal capability.

Expanding on some of these points

  • Yucca Mt. is 100 miles from the closest population center, Las Vegas; it’s in a desert so there is minimal ground or surface water to interact with the waste; it’s a geologically stable location. (note: the Hanford, Washington site has similar supportive qualities.)
  • Fukushima  – While the above ground storage casks presently being used for storage of spent fuel are much safer than the storage pools of spent fuel at the Fukushima plants, they are still not as technologically robust as a geological repository.  We are using a technology designed for decades while arguing about the suitability of Yucca Mt. in the 10,000 to 1,000,000 year time frame.  This is politics not technology.
  • Terrorism – Same argument, we are accepting storage casks as suitable on a temporary basis when we could be using a much safer geological repository.
  • New nuclear plants- We allow the political badminton game to continue, discussing the potential problems of nuclear power while ignoring the present problems of green house gasses.  Per Dr. Stephen Pacala of Princeton University, we must use all of the solutions available to us to solve the dual problem of energy self-sufficiency and greenhouse gas climate change.

Politics

The 1987 amendment of the NWPA clearly included backroom politics.  How else do you explain dropping the Hanford, Washington and the Deaf Smith Co., Texas sites two years into the thorough study?  So one can understand why a 2/3 majority of  Navadans oppose Yucca Mt. and feel it was forced on them without due process.  We all have a “Not in my backyard” opinion about many types of facilities, and a 2/3 majority clearly explains Senator Reid’s opposition.

Candidate Obama’s statement of opposition during the 2008 campaign can be explained as typical campaign rhetoric.  The 2000 election taught candidates that every electoral vote may be important. So why not tell the Nevada voters you support one of their hot button issues.  This isn’t an issue that’s likely to get a candidate skewered in another state, as long as the candidate doesn’t bring it up.

However, President Obama’s continued opposition to Yucca Mt., to try to keep Senator Reid in office during the 2010 elections (at the expense of the rest America) is one of the most egregious pieces of politics I’ve seen.  To me this was clearly a case of choosing “What’s best for the party” over “What’s best for America”.

I have to believe that as a Scientist, Dr. Chu must have been chocking on his own words when he announced that the location of America’s nuclear waste repository needed additional study.

There is one more piece to this political puzzle, and this one is more insidious, I may even be wrong, but follow along and form your own opinion.  Larry J. Sabato writes in the Sept. 6, 2011 Wall Street Journal, “The 2012 Election Will Come down to Seven States.” (= Electoral votes)  These include Nevada (6) and Ohio (18) among the 12 “swing” states.  However Michigan (16) and Pennsylvania (20) are not necessarily “sure things” for the Democrats, nor are Indiana (11) and North Carolina (15) sure bets for the Republicans.  Beside Nevada, where do these other states fit in the discussion?  As Thomas L. Friedman points out in Hot, Flat, and Crowded, these other states are all “Coal States.”  The big coal money supporting politics in those states is not going to mind seeing delays in resolving the nuclear waste issue.  Long-term that could open the door to nuclear power replacing coal (the most CO2 producing form of energy).

If we are to give our Grandchildren a better world, we have to first expand the non-CO2 producing energy sources and then start replacing the CO2 producing ones.  Yes- I believe the 98% of the climate scientists that support climate change due to greenhouse gasses.

 

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