Yucca Mountain is Dead. Long Live Yucca Mountain!
Last October, during the Republican primaries, I made a prediction regarding the future of Yucca Mountain - namely, don't bet on it. Not, of course, because it's particularly deficient on a technical level (it's not perfect, but you can judge the science that went into it for yourself.) But rather, the battle for Yucca mountain left its opponents holding the political high ground - particularly when even none of the Republican hopefuls would defend the site at risk of angering Nevada voters.
Skip forward to today. Mitt Romney (last seen saying anything to the residents of Nevada that he think would lead to his election) has lost, meaning any possibility of a reversal of fortune for Yucca Mountain is pretty much dead in the water for the next four years (and likely now for all time).
Politically, not much has changed. Harry Reid still wields an inexplicable* position of influence over the Senate, and Obama still holds the presidency. Absent a surprise intervention by the Supreme Court on the Yucca licensing issue or a sudden change of heart by the residents of Nevada outside of Nye county (the potential host of Yucca Mountain, and generally more supportive overall of the project, namely because of the perceived benefits in terms of high-paying jobs and local investment which generally balance out perceived risks), it is unlikely anything much is going to happen.
(*One of my students in my Nuclear Waste Management class asked me how Harry Reid managed to ascend to such a position of influence from what is otherwise an inconsequential state - to which I had to answer, "I don't know, it is beyond the scope of this class." I really don't have a good answer for this one.)
As an aside, relevant to this discussion is an interview in this month's Nuclear News with Chairwoman Allison MacFarlane:
Q: Do you have technical concerns about a repository at Yucca Mountain, such as the rock form or the possibility of contact with an aquifer?
Let me explain. The technical analysis that I did on Yucca Mountain was in the pre-2002 time frame. Since then, in 2008, the Department of Energy submitted a license application. Then the NRC did some technical analysis. I haven’t looked at either of those. So I haven’t updated myself on the technical situation or on any new information that’s come in within the last 10 years. And so, as a careful scientist, I would hold off on making any judgment.
On one hand, as a fellow scientist, I appreciate Dr. MacFarlane's reticence toward commenting on a technical issue which she herself recognizes that she is not current on. On the other hand, it is somewhat distressing that the chairwoman of the NRC would not deign to familiarize herself with those very same findings. (I realize that Dr. MacFarlane obviously has a very full agenda, but nonetheless given that her specialty with geologic disposal of nuclear wastes was one of her core competencies given for her nomination to head the agency, the fact that she has been an extremely outspoken critic of Yucca Mountain, and the fact that this is a timely and controversial topic facing her agency, one would think that she might find the time for a bit of... "light weekend reading...")
By this point, your response is probably something along the lines of, "Thanks for the update on News of the Obvious." But to be honest, it seems like a great many people haven't seemed to get the memo yet. Following a discussion on Jim Conca's recent Forbes piece featuring WIPP (the Waste Isolation Pilot Project in Carlsbad, NM, which is responsible for handling military-origin transuranic wastes to be buried deep in salt bed caverns), the question was inevitably asked - "If WIPP is working, why can't Yucca Mountain?"
Herein lies the problem. Debates over the technical details of Yucca aside (details which have been exhaustively studied for nearly two decades), it was never about technical feasibility. One of the most salient arguments I have tried to convey upon my students (and anyone else unfortunate enough to be caught within earshot) is that process matters. Again and again this has been emphasized - by myself and by the findings of the Blue Ribbon Commission themselves. (As well as by social science experts - see for example, this decent op-ed by Chris Mooney on science communication right around the time Yucca faced the axe.)
WIPP worked namely because WIPP made sure to do the process right. From the start, WIPP focused on public engagement and local consent - trying to build understanding and consensus before they broke ground. And to that end, they've been remarkably successful. WIPP enjoys extremely high levels of support from the local Carlsbad community, largely in part due to the influx of high-paying jobs it has brought an otherwise very rural economy. And by committing to transparency and public oversight from the start, the WIPP project managed to soften much of the opposition which may have otherwise doomed such a project - namely because the public felt like both they had a say and that the process was fair and trustworthy. (Mind you, it is unlikely one will ever gain complete consensus - namely because there are some who persist in asserting that nuclear waste is an "unsolvable" problem and frankly have no interest in solving it...)
But far too often in the technical community, there is an attitude that this process can be circumvented. "Who cares what the unwashed masses think? We're right and they're not" - a fine ethos for a dictatorship run by scientists and engineers, a recipe for repeated and painful failure in a democracy. This is the attitude that I see prevailing each and every time I hear someone hammer on why we need to keep pushing on Yucca Mountain - either by forcing a showdown on the licensing process or some other means. And let me reiterate - on a technical basis, I think Yucca Mountain is a sufficient (not ideal, namely because it consigns otherwise recoverable resources to waste, but sufficient) solution.
Here's the problem - it's off the table. There is about a snowball's chance in hell of any of the following factors aligning to rescue Yucca Mountain right now: Chairwoman MacFarlane rescuing the Yucca Mountain license (previously withdrawn with prejudice by Secretary Chu), a sudden reversal in position by President Obama, an intervention by the Supreme Court to finish the Yucca Mountain licensing evaluation, a marked shift of opinion in the state of Nevada, or the sudden departure of Sen. Harry Reid.
Like it or not, the political deck has been stacked against Yucca. Perhaps why it's so hard for technical folks to accept is because of this - it's a victory of politics over science - and unabashedly so. But even assuming Yucca were never to have been derailed by an opportunistic president looking to make a deal with an influential senator, the problems at the core still remain - a process built on a foundation of rolling over state-level consent. It is hardly believable that the opposition which has escalated through the courts up until the 2010 would suddenly evaporate upon Yucca's grand opening. Instead, it is far more likely that another decade of contentious (and expensive) lawsuits would have followed, bankrolled (in somewhat ironic fashion) by the same funds legally obligated to the state of Nevada for hosting the repository by the Nuclear Waste Policy Act.
$8 billion and all I got was this lousy blog post
Hence my point of emphasis to folks still pushing Yucca Mountain: he's dead, Jim. Let this one go and start thinking about what to do right now while we begin the process again, this time hopefully learning something from our $8 billion lesson.
The sunk cost is perhaps what is hard for most to accept, particularly in the nuclear community. $8 billion is a high price to pay for learning to respect the process of siting a repository in equal measure to the level of technical effort that went into it. But again, this is where the hard-nosed realism of technical folks must prevail - what do you hope to do now? Wishing for a more favorable political situation won't bring back your $8 billion or put a single fuel assembly into the ground. Instead, it's going to require a hard gut check and some long thinking about where we go from here.
So what now?
Let me quote now from wisdom of the Bard Jagger:
You can't always get what you want
But if you try sometimes, you just might find
You get what you need
In the short term, what is needed is some means of storing spent fuel, particularly from already-decommissioned sites (i.e., "orphaned fuel") in a consolidated interim storage facility. Such a facility would be inherently temporary by nature, something which can be enforced by contractual penalties as a means of making such a site more attractive to the host community. Fuel would be kept in concrete storage casks, where it is currently safely licensed to be kept for periods of up to 60 years, and may potentially be safely stored for up to 100-200 years, following further study.
Meanwhile, the main upshot of such a move to interim storage is that it provides a workable solution for the time being until the process of siting a repository can be restarted (which it inevitably must be). This something both recommended by the BRC and is now being proposed by outgoing Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM). Whether it or not it goes anywhere in Congress is anyone's guess (although it will likely and unfortunately be eclipsed by much of the talk of the coming "fiscal cliff.")
My own feelings on interim storage have evolved somewhat over the years; it was not long ago that I was critical of such a strategy, namely because it felt like "kicking the can down the road" to future generations. But here's the rub - as much as I generally favor strategies like reprocessing on the grounds of energy recovery, as far as economics go, it simply can't compete with the cost of mining new uranium, even with the repository cost tacked on - and the requisite technologies like fast-spectrum reactors which can effectively transmute and fission long-lived actinides (thermal spectrum, "light water" reactors like those we run now aren't particularly efficient at this) - simply aren't here yet. In that sense, absent the infrastructure to reprocess and effectively burn all of the long-lived constituents of used fuel (not just plutonium), it may just make sense to let it sit around for awhile under well-monitored conditions. Even assuming technology never progresses forward, the end result is a cooler, less radioactive fuel that is less expensive to dispose of. (It is one of the few problems in life that manages to get cheaper the longer you wait.)
Such a position doesn't necessarily sit perfectly with me - as a technical person, I have a bias toward action. (Which of course would be why my research focuses on advanced waste management and recovery strategies). But such a solution is certainly better than a complete failure of the federal government to meet its obligations to ratepayers (i.e., consumers of nuclear electricity) who have paid $30 billion over the last two decades to handle this problem, only to be met with nothing to show for it.
Siting even an interim storage for used fuel won't be trivial - it will likely run into some of the same political challenges Yucca Mountain has faced, if the fate of the proposed Private Fuel Storage facility in Utah is any indication. (PFS has negotiated with a Native American tribe - the Skull Valley Band of the Goshute Tribe - to host such a facility. Despite the fact that the facility is on tribal lands, the state of Utah has attempted to do everything in its power to block the proposed facility - namely by denying rail and road access.) But it may serve as a useful trial run for getting the process right when it comes to the "real thing," i.e., siting a permanent geologic repository.
On a final note, I will be supervising my students' end of semester projects this evening. The task I assigned them was to propose an amendment to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, taking into account the failures of U.S. high-level waste management policy (including a technical analysis of their proposed alternatives compared to the "baseline" scenario). It should be interesting to see what they come up with.
Steve Skutnik is currently an Assistant Professor of Nuclear Engineering at the University of Tennessee; he regularly blogs about nuclear fuel cycle and energy issues at The Neutron Economy. His areas of research expertise include nuclear fuel cycles, waste management, and nuclear nonproliferation / security issues.
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