With the imminent license renewal of the majority of US nuclear power plants and the insistence of the Bush administration to build additional plants, the need for long-term storage of nuclear waste is greater than ever. Current estimates have the nation’s 103 nuclear reactors producing 84,000 metric tons of waste by 2035 (Hansen, 2001). With the current containers either close to or completely filled, the Department of Energy has chosen the Yucca Mountains as the permanent repository for nuclear waste. A seemingly ideal location, Yucca Mountain is 100 miles outside of Las Vegas, with the nearest humans 15 miles away (Hansen, 2001).
However, many environmentalists and Nevada residents have grave reservations about putting the permanent storage at Yucca Mountain, citing concerns such as waste transportation dangers, geological instability, and the inability of the site to store all of the United States waste. They feel this is a hasty decision that is political in nature (Hansen, 2001). While the storage of nuclear waste is not an ideal situation, America’s current reliance on nuclear power makes it a necessity. The Yucca Mountain repository is currently the best option for long-term storage because of its relative isolation from human settlements, natural geological features, and its large storage capacity.
Since nuclear waste is deadly to humans, the location of a long-term facility is crucial. In the event of a catastrophe, the ability to isolate the area effectively and expose as few people as possible to danger is critical. With the closest humans 15 miles away, Yucca Mountain is an ideal place to build the repository. The location provides the safety necessary for the success of the project by limiting people’s exposure to radioactivity. The desert isolation also provides better security for the site, protecting from an easy assault by terrorists. With no one living near the mountain, several checkpoints can be setup allowing almost impregnable security access.
While the isolation of the site is a selling factor, the same seclusion creates one of the biggest dangers associated with this project. That problem is the transportation of nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain. The majority of states will ship many tons of waste by rail or truck to the repository. Critics feel human error and weather conditions could lead to many accidents, with the possibility of a situation similar to Chernobyl. They feel that the more waste that is transported, the better chance an accident will occur. The fear is that emergency workers will not be able to handle the type of problems that could arise. However, tests of the shipping containers and computer modeling have produced little evidence that an accident would cause a wide spread release (Hansen, 2001). As long as trained emergency workers can effectively handle a potential dangerous situation, the rewards of the sire far outweigh the risk involved.
The Department of Energy plan calls for a site whose natural geological features, when mixed with human barriers, will provide a safe storage facility for the waste. According to a 1998 study, Yucca Mountain fits this requirement. Summarizing 15 years of site data, the Department of Energy report stated that the arid climate and stable geology would reduce the risk of a leak, with any leakage having to pass through 1000 feet of rock to reach the water level (as cited in Hansen, 2001). The study concludes that once sealed, there would be little or no increase in radiation exposure for 10,000 years (Hansen, 2001). Critics, including Nevada’s Agency for Nuclear Projects, disagree with the findings of the study however.
Citing other geological reports, Nevada’s Agency for Nuclear Projects claims that Yucca Mountain sits on an active earthquake zone and has received at least 600 examples of seismic activity of 2.5 or higher (as cited in Hansen, 2001). This activity could lead to a rupture in the tanks, which may result in a leak. The Department of Energy is confident that the potential seismic events will not result in container leakage since the design of the containers allows them to stand up to the elements and last 10,000 years. Even if the unthinkable occurs, the sites isolation will help keep danger to a minimum.
The other major factor making Yucca Mountain an ideal choice is the storage capacity of the site. Estimations state that 84,000 metric tons of waste will require storage by 2035 (Hansen, 2001). Even though Yucca Mountain only holds 70,000 metric tons, the majority of waste will be able to be safely stored. The large facility can double as a testing ground for new technologies, such as transmutation, and allow their incorporation into future storage sites. According to the National Research Council, Transmutation, the process of making nuclear waste less radioactive by extracting plutonium, allows isolation times to decrease significantly (as cited in Hansen, 2001).
Since the finished product is safer, it can be securely stored closer to humans. The major drawback is the cost, with estimates saying, the process would cost $280 billion according to a 1999 Department of Energy study (as cited in Hansen, 2001). However, the increased energy production created by the process will subsidize the cost. The other problem, according to the same 1999 Department of Energy study, is that the process would take 117 years to transmute the current American nuclear waste (as cited in Hansen, 2001). Continued research should help to decrease the cost and increase efficiency, allowing for even safer storage in the future.
Nuclear energy is an important element of our electrical production. Unfortunately, nuclear waste is a necessary by-product requiring the utmost safety. An isolated location with many natural barriers is necessary for the safe storage of nuclear waste. Yucca Mountain best seems to fit the requirements for a repository. Critics feel that long and frequent transportation runs increase the likely hood of a disastrous leak. The containers used to ship the waste should prevent this from happening. Opponents feel that any leakage could result in danger to inhabitants of the region. However, the closest people to Yucca Mountain are 15 miles away.
The deep rock should prevent any radioactivity from affecting the water levels, and the location of the mountain will make protection of the facility from terrorist mush easier. While Yucca will be able to store most but not all of the nation’s waste, it will allow the Department of Energy to test new technologies such as transmutation. This will allow for easier setup of future repositories and safer storage of future waste. Yucca Mountain is important to the future survival of nuclear power as effective energy. The site best fits all of the requirements needed to effectively store nuclear waste and will help guide future efforts for safe storage.