Chapter 1: Copyright 2002-2015 by John Bruce Davies, Ph.D.
Nuclear Waste and Yucca Mountain
"Then I saw that there was a way to Hell, even from the gates of Heaven." John Bunyan, 'The Pilgrim's Progress'.
Yucca Mountain is named after a harmless cactus growing on its slopes . However, the mountain's surrounded by such places as Death Valley and the Skull Mountains, far more appropriate names for the proposed home to the world's deadliest poisons, nuclear waste. One single atom of plutonium can give you cancer. The annihilation of one pound of uranium explodes with enough force to obliterate a city and hundreds of thousands of its inhabitants. The Energy Department wants to transport across America and dump more than 77,000 tons of these toxic metals under Yucca Mountain.
The nuclear waste to be transported and dumped is so concentrated that it is within just a few percent of the critical level at which nuclear explosions can occur. Small increases in nuclear fuel and waste concentrations and/or their moisture contents can result in an explosive release of radioactive poisons. This is what happened in the Chernobyl catastrophe, which did and still does cause widespread radiation sickness and horrendous loss of life. And that was a release of only a few tons of radioactive material! Yucca Mountain will contain 20,000 times this amount.
"Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe." H.G. Wells, 'The Outline of History'.
After twenty years of studies, controversy still rages around claims and concerns regarding the dangers and hazards of this dumping program. Opponents claim that it entails high-risk cross-country transportation of the poisonous nuclear waste. This hot radioactive material would then be stored in a single underground dump or, as in the spin of its supporters, a repository. The Energy Department's chosen site is beneath Yucca Mountain, located only 90 miles north of the entertainment capitol of the world, Las Vegas, Nevada. Trouble is, this barren ridge is smack-dab in the middle of the most active and unstable geological region in all of North America, the Basin and Range province (Figure 1-2). Government-funded supporters of the site claim that, for the next 10,000 years, it'll be a safe haven for the deadly nuclear waste. Independent scientists are concerned that it will turn into a Hell-on-Earth for future generations.
"Hell is paved with good intentions, not with bad ones." George Bernard Shaw, 'Man and Superman'.
Scientific, legal and political battles are focusing on if, when and how natural or human forces could destroy the dump. At Yucca Mountain, if the underground waste-storage containers break or breach, groundwater can enter and cover the nuclear waste. Just this could cause the nuclear material to go critical, possibly leading to an explosion thousands of times larger than Chernobyl. Earthquakes and volcanoes are known to occur near the dump-site and similar future incidents could cause rupturing of the nuclear waste containers. These natural events could also force the groundwater to rise from below, rushing through the underground tunnels and flooding over the nuclear waste. If just one of the thousands of containers exploded, a chain reaction of thermonuclear explosions could be set off in the adjacent remainder. The desert sands of Nevada would melt into glass; a permanent nuclear winter would eradicate all life-forms on the planet.
Nuclear Waste and Criticality
"Slowly the poison the whole bloodstream fills..
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills."
William Empson, 'Missing Dates'.
The origin of our problem with nuclear waste goes back over 50 years to the Manhattan project and its development of nuclear weapons. Urgency in defeating the twin evils of the Nazis and Japanese military and the subsequent dangers of the Cold War combined to make nuclear waste a non-issue. After the war, promotion of "cheap and clean" nuclear power entailed a cover-up of its byproduct of massive amounts of poisonous waste.
"Haste makes Waste." John Heywood, 'Proverbs'.
Nuclear waste containing plutonium and uranium will be at its hottest and most dangerously radioactive for the next 1,000 years. It'll be cooling and decaying for 10,000 years, the planned life for any waste storage system. At least 77,000 tons would be moved to the Yucca Mountain site by rail and truck. Only a few tons of nuclear waste will be enclosed in each huge transport cask weighing up to 100 tons, necessitating tens of thousands of high-risk trips. Even with the great weight of shielding, radiation will still escape from the casks and be a danger to anyone close-by. A loaded transport cask is basically a small nuclear reactor with the internal cooling water at temperatures close to boiling (Figure 1-4).
Nuclear Dump Siting
"To what purpose is this waste?" The Bible, Mathew 26:8.
Initially, a number of locations in different states were proposed by the DOE and USGS as potential sites for a high-level nuclear waste dump. Nevada has few people, not enough political clout in Washington, and a long history of nuclear activities on its federally-owned lands. So, corporate lobbyists pressured Congress into mandating that Nevada be the only state with a site to be subjected to "further investigation". Yucca Mountain is next to the federal nuclear test site and close to numerous military and top-secret bases. Supposedly, a prominent USGS hydrologist chose the site because of its low water table, though without him understanding the true underlying reason for the low groundwater level.
"Politics are not an exact science." Bismarck, Speech,1863.
So intense became the political pressure to approve the Yucca Mountain site that the U.S. Geological Survey, which was waffling on the site's suitability, was threatened with closure by Congress. A few USGS scientists, who have argued that the Yucca Mountain region is close to failure in an earthquake, have had their jobs and pensions threatened and been forced to retire early. DOE and contractor geologists and engineers have been isolated and ignored when they questioned safety aspects of the proposed dump and site, some eventually resigning in disgust.
In January 2002, the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board sent letters to Congress and the Secretary of Energy outlining the strengths and weaknesses of the DOE and USGS studies and the boards conclusions on the safety aspects of the Yucca Mountain site. The list of strengths is short; the list of weaknesses long and detailed. Despite manipulations by the professional staff controlling the Board, it bravely concluded that there are 'important uncertainties' in the long-term safety of the proposed repository. The General Accounting Office of Congress has similarly blasted the site selection of Yucca Mountain.
Nuclear Dangers and Hazards
"Dangers by being despised grow great." Edmund Burke.
Rail and truck accidents will put the huge and cumbersome transportation casks at risk of being impacted and broken open. Consequences can include release of radioactive gases and waste into the environment and costly contamination of citizens, cities and countryside. Even more dangerous are potential and unpredictable terrorist attacks or sabotage. A single cheap shoulder-fired missile could blow a hole in the cask, impacting the interior waste and creating an explosion. A jet aircraft, loaded with fuel, crashing into a nuclear waste train could cause a tragedy with far worse death and damage than the World Trade Center disaster.
The impact of any mistake in the evaluation of the safety of a nuclear dump-site at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, cannot be underestimated. An explosive release into the ecosystem of that deadliest of all poisons, radioactive plutonium, could cause extreme extinction of life. The Chernobyl disaster, which killed and is still killing hundreds of thousands, emitted a few tons of radioactive poisons from a single reactor core explosion. In the storage tunnels below Yucca Mountain, there will be more than ten thousand times this amount. A " worst-case" scenario of explosive release of all this nuclear material is beyond comprehension in its effects.
"Men that hazard all, do it in hope of fair advantages." William Shakespeare, 'The Merchant of Venice'.
In courts of law, evidence is evaluated only by independent judges and jurors. However, it is the nuclear power industry and government agency scientists, or their cohorts, who are arguing that this location is safe for a federal repository, an obvious conflict of interest. And we are all too familiar with the major blunders for which government agencies have been responsible, such as Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, the Space Shuttle disasters and too many more. The Energy Department's contractors have used computer simulation methods to predict the performance and safety of the dump. They "guess-timated" values for the more than one thousand parameters that supposedly govern the repository behavior. Inputting these into a particular computer program allows them to project the repository's behavior forward for 10,000 years under different hazard situations. Not surprisingly, considering they get to choose the parameter values, their results indicate minimum danger to the dump's safety. However, having been a high-paid consultant to a major bank on identical computer methods, I can guarantee that the classic computer adage applies to the DOE's conclusions: "Garbage in means garbage out".
Even the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board has criticized the Energy Department's science: "The Board questions the adequacy of computer models used to project how the site's natural features, including geological and hydrological formations, will protect the stored wastes." And: " There are a variety of problems with the studies that aim to ensure the safety of the site.... Gaps in data and basic understanding cause important uncertainties in the concepts and assumptions on which the DOE's performance estimates are now based."
The Board also raises concerns about how well casks designed to contain the wastes for 10,000 years, as required by lawmakers, will hold up to the tests of time and natural and manmade disasters. The March 26, 2002, issue of the New York Times reports that at the 25-year-old Davis-Besse nuclear plant "(boric) acid in cooling water had eaten a hole nearly all the way through the six-inch lid of a reactor..". Corrosion threatened the reactor core possibly leading to a meltdown. Officials from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission "said they had never seen so much corrosion in a nuclear vessel". All reactors of similar design will probably be closed to repair this corrosion damage at costs of many millions of dollars. Brian Sheridan, an associate director of the NRC said that, previously, this "was never considered a credible type of concern". As the Las Vegas Review-Journal comments: "The lesson is clear. Even the most sound current science can't envision every possible risk. But while (government) scientists didn't anticipate this potential risk in a nuclear facility that's a mere 25 years old, we're supposed to buy that they can guarantee the safety of Yucca Mountain for 10,000 years?"
Geological and Legal Issues
"A few honest men are better than numbers." Oliver Cromwell
Only a small group of Earth and physical scientists have examined, without bias, the geological evidence found at the Yucca Mountain site. One of their conclusions is that the area is susceptible to further volcanic eruptions, geologically-recent cinder cones having previously erupted nearby (Figure 1-4). I and a few associates, as well as USGS scientists now in forced retirement, have proven that the numerous faults close to the Mountain are ready to fail in destructive earthquakes. Most dangerous of all, historic records for the region prove that such earthquakes can cause underground water to rise rapidly and produce underground and surface flooding. I used standard USGS computer programs to model and explain the site's groundwater distribution and showed that even moderate earthquakes can force the water table toward the surface and flood the dump. Geological and geochemical evidence confirms that the repository region has been subjected to numerous earthquakes and incidents of subsurface flooding in the geologically-recent past.
"Take nothing on its looks, take everything on evidence. There's no better rule." Charles Dickens, 'Great Expectations'.
Various organizations are fighting the Yucca Mountain site in all possible ways. Water rights for the Energy Department's program are being contested by the State of Nevada. Environmental and aboriginal groups are protesting the unsafe site. Transport of the waste through cities and towns throughout the country is being denied. However, the best legal method of defeating this project is to prove to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that the government's scientific basis for licensing the site is unsound and incorrect. This will entail examination by experienced lawyers and scientific experts of the salient geological evidence and analytical studies.
The federal government and its numerous agencies have used their influence to deter the publication of unbiased evaluations of the geological hazards facing the repository. A few scientists have published, in peer-reviewed scientific journals, investigations of the site's geological properties. Their research of the scientific evidence has proven the danger to the proposed repository of the existing natural forces. Resisting government pressure, they have spoken out against placing this deadly material at the unstable and unsafe Yucca Mountain site. All welcome the opportunity to prove their conclusions when the licensing phase begins in 2004.
"You're either part of the solution or part of the problem." Eldridge Cleaver, Speech, San Francisco 1968.
If this central storage program goes ahead, every person and life-form on the planet will be at risk now and for the next four hundred generations. Thankfully, alternative and superior solutions to this deadly nuclear waste problem are being investigated and promoted. In fact, there's already a far better solution to the nuclear waste problem. One that completely avoids the dangers from terrorists, accidents and sabotage if the nuclear material is moved across the country. One where we wouldn't have to worry about the Yucca Mountain dump getting hit by damaging volcanoes, earthquakes and water-flooding.
The reason that this material is termed waste is that the nuclear industry wishes to optimize its profits. By removing the radioactive rods when they are producing heat a few percent below the maximum, the industry's accountants and executives have calculated that their return on investment will be maximized. However, they ignore the environmental costs of handling the toxic waste and of mining the poisonous uranium source material. If the "waste" rods were not replaced and allowed to produce heat at a lower rate for a longer time in the reactor, these environmental effects would be minimized.
Rather than depending on a sole unproven repository, other alternative solutions are available whereby the nuclear wastes can be safely processed in their present storage locations on-site at the already-licensed nuclear facilities (Figure 1-3). This processing could entail recycling of the wastes into fresh fuel for the reactors or solidification of the waste materials. The necessary technology is completely capable of and readily available to isolate the waste from the environment at these sites. Within a few decades, the rapid advance of science will produce even better methods for neutralizing and/or utilizing the waste. Federal and National Guard units already protect these nuclear facilities from terrorists and sabotage.
"Cui bono? - To whose profit?" Cicero, 'Pro Milone'.
However, this most-sensible of all solutions is contrary to the three "ells" of American business; liabilities, lobbyists and law-makers. The nuclear power-generating utilities and the nuclear weapons' contractors don't want the legal liabilities of storing the waste. Through hired lobbyists they've pressured nuclear agency administrators and coerced government and National Academy scientists into approving a single central repository. The corporations' funds and lobbyists convinced congressional law-makers that the government should be responsible for taking and storing the waste. By these venal means, corrupt multi-national corporations are deceptively transferring the nuclear danger and their liabilities onto the American people.
"The broad masses of the people.. will more easily fall victims to a big lie than to a small one." Adolf Hitler, 'Mein Kampf'.