Canadian Consulting Engineer

Nuclear Power: Yucca Mountain

March 1, 2003
By Paul H. Boge, P. Eng.

Blackjack, poker, slot machines, and Caesar's Palace. These usually come to mind when people think about the gaming Mecca of Nevada. But if recent nuclear waste legislation carries through, the Silver...

Blackjack, poker, slot machines, and Caesar’s Palace. These usually come to mind when people think about the gaming Mecca of Nevada. But if recent nuclear waste legislation carries through, the Silver State may become known for another reason.

As a U.S. garbage dump.

The American government plans to build a nuclear waste repository about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas at the Yucca Mountain site. Their goal is to centralize the storage of approximately 70,000 metric tons of radioactive material produced by 103 nuclear power plants in America. The Department of Energy maintains that both the idea and location are safe. So why are Nevadans so upset?

Nevada’s Republican Governor, Kenny Guinn, doesn’t think the project is such a great idea. In his Yucca Mountain address he said: “Yucca Mountain is not safe. It is not suitable… [it] is not only harmful to Nevada, but … it is also dangerous to virtually every state in this nation.”

Guinn and other opponents of the Yucca Mountain project have two main problems with the Nevada site. First, there is concern that the radioactive waste may leak into the ground resulting in health risks. Second, there is fear that that the transportation of nuclear waste from every reactor in America to Nevada poses a great and unnecessary danger to Americans.

The Department of Energy (DOE) has been studying Yucca Mountain for 20 years. In that time they have spent US $4 billion to gather large amounts of technical and scientific data on the mountain, such as its geology, hydrology, biology and climate. The geologic repository at Yucca will include both natural and engineered systems. It is believed that these two systems working together will prevent water from moving through the repository and avoid the most likely scenario in which radioactive materials could escape.

Scientists say three key elements made the natural conditions at the Yucca Mountain site attractive. First, it is a remote location and a significant distance from Las Vegas. Second, it has a dry climate — only six inches of rainfall each year. Third, the water table is between 800 and 1,000 feet below the level of the potential repository. The engineered systems that will be implemented include durable waste packages covered by corrosion-resistant drip shields. The system of controls is further helped by the waste being in solid form.

Before arriving at the conclusion of using the deep geologic disposal method at Yucca Mountain, scientists considered a variety of alternatives. The idea of sending nuclear waste into space was jettisoned because the possibility of an accident during launch proved to be unacceptable — not to mention the impractical burden of the number of launches that would be required. The sub-seabed disposal option, where radioactive waste is buried under the ocean floor, was rejected because of the technical difficulty in constructing an undersea repository. Other options like transmutation or burying the waste 10 kilometres underground, in polar ice caps, or on remote islands, were also turned down.

University of Nevada, Reno political science Professor Eric Herzik says, “without a viable alternative and with pressure from their own constituents, the proposed Yucca Project solves both a technical and political problem for many Senators.”

In effect, Nevada is on the verge of becoming (remaining) a dumping ground for U.S. projects. For 50 years, the government used Nevada for above and below ground nuclear testing. For many, it seems that nuclear waste is the next step. While scientists argue that Yucca Mountain is safe, various groups say there is no way the government can guarantee water quality safety. Zack Roth, an activist with the Sierra Club, warns that the mountain leaks, which could result in groundwater becoming contaminated with nuclear waste.

Professor Craig Walton of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas headed a team of faculty and graduate students in an extensive study of the laws concerning high-level waste management and environmental justice issues. He and his team are not convinced that sufficient engineering and technical research was done by the DOE to support the Yucca decision. “The government [has] used computer simulation instead of on-site investigation in many of the areas of geologic, seismic, volcano, or underground water movement controversy,” he says. “They say they do not have the money to do actual studies. So no-one believes real investigation has taken place on the seriously dicey issues involved.”

On the subject of transportation, even though dissidents of Yucca Mountain point to the dangerous shipping of the spent fuel rods as being a disaster waiting to happen, not all Nevadans believe it’s as big an issue as it seems. “High level nuclear waste has been transported for some 40 years without a single accident in which radioactive materials were released,” says Herzik. “Tests of prototypes under a variety of accident scenarios indicated the likelihood of canister breakage at 1 in 10 million.”

Try as he might, Governor Guinn was unsuccessful at winning the Senate over to his side. He urged Congress to set politics aside and recognize that the project was based on bad science, but his veto was outvoted 60-39. President Bush signed the legislation approving the Yucca project last July. The first shipment to Yucca is slated for 2010.

In the end, the house beat Las Vegas.

Canada’s Nuclear Waste

On our side of the border the nuclear waste management issue is coming into focus. The newly formed Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) has three years to evaluate our waste management options which include storage on site, central storage and deep geologic disposal. The NWMO is established under the Nuclear Fuel Waste Act which just came into force on November 15, 2002. In addition to creatiing the NWMO, the Act requires electricity generating companies that produce used nuclear fuel to finance its long term management through the use of segregated trust funds.

Elizabeth (Liz) Dowdeswell is president of NWMO. Her impressive resume lists her as executive director of the United Nations Environment Program from 1993 to 1998. She has the challenge of investigating long-term solutions for managing Canada’s used nuclear fuel. “How we do our work is as important as what we recommend … We want people to feel our process has been fair and transparent and we want people to have confidence in the recommendation.”

Dowdeswell explains her direction at the NWMO. “[We want] to satisfy ourselves that the right technological questions have been asked. We don’t want to thrust upon the public a predetermined solution.” Dowdeswell maintains she is looking for a holistic approach in providing a recommendation. “The recommendation will not only consider the technological and economic assessments, but the social and ethical issues as well.” She says the NWMO will make true dialogue with the public an ongoing goal.

The NWMO is made up of Ontario Power Generation, Hydro Qubec and New Brunswick Power. While it’s too soon for anyone at the Ministry of Natural Resources or the NMWO to comment on where a central storage or deep geologic deposit might be located — should either approach be chosen — Ontario or Quebec would be likely candidates.

Paul H. Boge, P.Eng. is an engineer with Boge & Boge of Winnipeg.


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