Hazardous radioactive waste is building up at nuclear power plants across the country. For decades, the U-S government’s only plan was to stick that waste out of sight and out of mind … far below Yucca Mountain, Nevada. Recently, President Barack Obama scrapped that plan. Shawn Allee looks at where the President wants to go now:
Hazardous radioactive waste is building up at nuclear power plants across the country.
For decades, the U-S government’s only plan was to stick that waste out of sight and out of mind … far below Yucca Mountain, Nevada.
Recently, President Barack Obama scrapped that plan.
Shawn Allee looks at where the President wants to go now.
The old nuclear waste plan was simple: take spent fuel leftover from nuclear reactors and bury it under Yucca Mountain.
That would have moved the problem away from nuclear power plants and people who live nearby.
The Obama Administration cut the program but only said, the program “has not proven effective.”
Energy Secretary Steven Chu tried explaining that to the U-S Senate.
“I don’t believe one can say, scientists are willing to say Yucca Mountain is the ideal site, given what we know today and given what we believe can be developed in the next 50 years.”
So … Obama’s administration is switching gears, and government scientists have to adjust.
“I worked at Yucca Mountain for ten years.”
Mark Peters is a deputy director at Argonne National Laboratory west of Chicago.
“I ran the testing program, so I got intimate involvement in Yucca Mountain. The license application has pieces of me all through it.”
Peters says he’s disappointed Yucca Mountain was killed.
But he says that’s a personal opinion – he’s on board with the new policy.
In fact … he’s helping it along.
Obama created a blue-ribbon commissison.
Commissioners will come up with new solutions for nuclear waste within two years.
Peters will tell them about new technology.
“There are advanced reactor concepts that could in fact do more effective burning of the fuel, so the spent fuel’s not so toxic when the fuel comes out.”
Peters says these “fast breeder reactors” might not just produce less nuclear waste.
They might use the old stuff that was supposed to head to Yucca.
“You extract the usable content, make a new fuel and burn it in a reactor, so you actually get to the point where you’re recycling the uranium and plutonium and other elements people’ve heard about.”
But Obama’s blue – ribbon nuclear waste commission could find problems with fast-breeder technology.
In the 1970s, we ran a commercial prototype, but it didn’t work very long.
Peters says new versions might be decades away.
There’s another problem, too.
“One important point is that there’s still waste from that process. So we have to go back to ultimately, some kind of geologic repository for part of the system.”
In other words … we’d have less waste, but we’d still have to bury it … somewhere.
History suggests there’s gonna be a squabble over any location.
After all, Yucca Mountain wasn’t the government’s first stab at an underground nuclear waste site.
“It had an embarassing failure in Lyons, Kansas between 1970 and 1972.”
That’s Sam Walker, a historian at the U-S Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
He’s talking about the old Atomic Energy Commission, or AEC.
The AEC pushed hard to bury nuclear waste in a salt mine, even though scientists in Kansas had doubts.
“And then it turned out that the salt mine they had planned to place the waste in was not technically suitable either. So, what the AEC did was to lose its battle on both political and technical grounds.”
Walker says for 15 years, the government scouted for another location to dump hazardous nuclear waste.
“There was lots of vocal public opposition to even investigating sites.”
Eventually, the debate got too hot.
Congress settled on Yucca Mountain, Nevada, even though scientists debated whether it’d work.
Congress kept Yucca Mountain going because it promised to keep nuclear waste out of everyone’s back yards … except for Nevada’s.
Now with Yucca Mountain out of the picture, it could take years for Obama’s administration to settle on a way to handle nuclear waste.
In the mean time, power plants across the country are stacking spent fuel in pools of water or in concrete casks.
For decades the federal government said this local storage is both safe and temporary.
It still says it’s safe, but now, no one’s sure what temporary really means.
For The Environment Report, I’m Shawn Allee.