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Yucca Mountain: The right place for spent nuclear fuel

By Gerald E. Marsh and George Stanford
web posted January 21, 2002

In proposing to finalize Yucca Mountain in Nevada as the site of the nation's spent nuclear fuel repository, Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham has made the right choice.

This would be true on either side of September 11th, but on this side of those horrendous events, we can clearly see that public safety will benefit. The transfer of the spent fuel, currently located beside reactors all across the United States, to this secure underground location will essentially eliminate otherwise well-protected nuclear power plants as potential terrorist targets.

Even if future generations make Yucca Mountain a permanent, rather than interim, repository, Nevadans and the general public will not be at risk.

How do we know?

Yucca Mountain
Yucca Mountain

Because there already are far more plutonium and fission products in the ground near Yucca Mountain - with no containment whatsoever - than could ever be expected to leak in the next few thousand years from the carefully-encapsulated fuel intended for storage. And this in-ground material, now in the desert, poses no risk to the public. Not even anti-nuclear-power environmentalists are concerned.

What are we talking about?

The Nevada nuclear test site, of course.

About a thousand nuclear bombs have been detonated there. From publicly available information, we calculate about four tons of plutonium remains at the test site as test residue, along with a much greater quantity of fission products. This radioactive material poses no threat to people. Those who are concerned about storage of spent nuclear fuel at Yucca Mountain thus can be reassured: Yucca Mountain is certainly an even better place than open desert for underground storage of radioactive material.

We don't need to worry about accidents while transporting waste to Yucca Mountain, either. Nuclear shipments have been involved in traffic mishaps, but as far as we know there has never, ever, been even one death or injury due to radiation released in a transportation accident anywhere in the world. For comparison, note that between 1982 and 1992, spills of gasoline and other chemicals in U.S. transportation accidents caused 107 deaths, over 1,400 injuries and the evacuation of more that 13,000 people.

Today, spent fuel freshly removed from a nuclear reactor is initially placed in a "wet storage" facility resembling a swimming pool, only much deeper. Many of those pools extend below ground level, but some are entirely above grade. There the fuel stays for a few years while the short-lived radioactive fission products decay away. Then it can be moved to dry storage in air-cooled concrete casks while it awaits long-term disposal.

For terrorists, a storage pool, particularly if it is entirely above ground, is the most tempting part of a nuclear power plant for a jetliner to hit, because it has the potential to create the most damage.

Ideally, then, to reduce the threat from terrorism, we should move fuel out of storage pools as soon as possible. It only makes sense to move the spent fuel to the most secure location possible: Yucca Mountain.

Yucca Mountain, too, should be seen as an interim storage facility, because reprocessing of spent reactor fuel, which does not now take place, should be reconsidered in light of new, proliferation-resistant fast-reactor technologies. With fast reactors and reprocessing it is possible to get more than 100 times as much energy from the fuel as is obtained by current U.S. nuclear plants. Reusing spent fuel in innovative fast reactors has an additional attraction, as what otherwise would be waste requiring storage for ten thousand years would become consumable fuel, and the residual waste from fast reactors becomes harmless in less than 500 years.

Secretary Abraham has had the courage to propose proceeding with disposal at Yucca Mountain, but the controversy is by no means over. It is now up to President Bush to approve that recommendation, recognizing that the Governor of Nevada, Kenny Guin, has vowed to reject the proposal, throwing the matter to Congress for a final decision.

Unfortunately, Congress is greatly divided. In the House, Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) has said he would bring the matter of Yucca Mountain to the floor expeditiously and expected overwhelming approval. However, in the Senate, Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD) has vowed to block the matter from even coming to a vote.

Mr. Daschle, his fellow senators and Nevadans should resist political pressure based on misconceptions. The risk from a Yucca Mountain repository is utterly negligible and its opening is truly in the national interest.

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 The National Center for Public Policy Research.

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