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Stop worrying about Yucca Mountain
By Gerald E. Marsh and George Stanford
The opposition to opening the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository is not about public safety. It is about nuclear power.
We know this because there are already far more plutonium and fission products under the ground - with no special containment - at the Nevada nuclear test site than could ever be expected to leak through the confinement barriers at the Yucca Mountain repository. At least four tons of plutonium remains at the test site, along with a much greater quantity of radioactive fission products. Yet there has been no worry about public safety, and rightly so, since this radioactive material poses no real threat to people.
Much of the worry over the repository comes from the inability of scientists to certify that nuclear waste can be isolated for 10,000 to 20,000 years, since nobody can predict what will happen over periods of time that transcend recorded history. But it doesn't matter!
The claimed need for such a long isolation period comes from assuming that spent reactor fuel is waste, and that this waste would still be dangerous after 10,000 years. Change these assumptions and the problem disappears.
Spent reactor fuel contains long-lived radioactive material that still has lots of energy in it. It can be reprocessed to remove this material, which can then be burned in advanced "fast" reactors to produce more than 100 times more energy. Old reasons for not doing this are no longer convincing in the light of new technologies. With reprocessing and fast reactors, the time the remaining waste would need to be isolated drops to around 500 years. Geological disposal for this period of time is almost trivial.
In light of these facts, Yucca Mountain should be thought of as an interim spent fuel repository. In the future, we will need the energy in this fuel.
However, even if the fuel value of the "waste" is not recovered, leakage of the material poses no long-term problem. There is so much natural radioactivity in the land near the repository (not counting the Nevada test site) that the extra contribution from the reactor waste after a few thousand years is trivial in comparison.
Nor need we worry about the transporting of spent fuel. Every year there are hundreds of thousands of shipments of gasoline in tanker trucks, and some of them turn over and catch fire and burn people (to take just one example of what we live with). There have been thousands of shipments of spent reactor fuel, too, and some of those have turned over. But we have not heard of even one case, anywhere in the world, where anyone at all has been exposed to dangerous radioactivity in a spent-fuel shipping accident.
The opposition to opening the repository is fueled by misinformation from anti-nuclear-power activists. Some just don't grasp the facts. Others seem to hope that if the utilities are unable to empty their spent-fuel storage ponds, they will not order new reactors and sooner or later the plants will have to be shut down. But that thinking is silly. If a repository is not opened, the waste will simply continue to be stored near reactors in storage ponds and dry-storage casks. Since aboveground storage of spent fuel represents the only significant terrorist target at nuclear generating plants, it is time for even the anti-nuclear-power folks to support the repository.
Frankly, it is also time for anti-nuclear activists evaluate their own position in terms of the actual risk to the public that nuclear power represents compared with the environmental impact of other energy sources. Nuclear power is by far the safest.
Conservation and alternative energy have a place, but they cannot provide the baseload electric power that will be needed in the future. Our population will grow, and energy demand with it. Lowering per capita consumption will help, but it will not solve the energy problem.
Gas-fired plants are considerably cleaner than those that burn coal or oil, but there is not enough gas for widespread baseload electricity without driving up the cost of gas, which will raise home-heating bills as well as electricity cost. We need gas for heating our homes. It is the use of gas rather than coal or oil for heating that has made American cities clean and healthy places to live.
It is time to act. Our need to be safe from terrorist attack while generating clean, low-cost energy mandates that people come together on the twin issues of Yucca Mountain and nuclear power.
Gerald Marsh is a physicist who served with the U.S. START delegation and was a consultant to the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations on strategic nuclear policy and technology for many years. He is on the advisory board of The National Center for Public Policy Research. George Stanford is a nuclear reactor physicist, now retired from Argonne National Laboratory after a career of experimental work pertaining to power-reactor safety.
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