Book review of “Too Hot to Touch: The Problem of High-Level Nuclear Waste”

A book review by Alice Friedemann of:

Too Hot to Touch: The Problem of High-Level Nuclear Waste by William M. Alley & Rosemarie Alley. 2013. Cambridge University Press.

Introduction to Nuclear Waste Disposal

After Yucca Mountain was thrown out as a nuclear waste site in 2009 after 25 years and $10 billion in studies — to help Senator Majority leader Harry Reid (D-NV) get re-elected in 2010 — there is nowhere to put nuclear waste.  Not much, if anything, is being done to find a new place, and there’s no chance an ideologically divided Congress would agree on a new site anyhow.

Meanwhile, 70,000 tons of spent nuclear reactor fuel and 20,000 giant canisters of defense-related high-level radioactive waste is sitting at 121 sites across 39 states, with another 70,000 tons on the way before nuclear power plants reach their end of life.  All of this waste is now, and for millions of years, exposing future generations and is vulnerable to terrorists, tsunamis, floods, rising sea levels, hurricanes, electric grid outages, earthquakes, tornadoes, and other disasters.

Spent fuel pools in America at 104 nuclear power plants, have an average of 10 times more radioactive fuel stored than what was at Fukushima, and almost no safety features such as a backup water-circulation systems and generators.

About 75% of spent fuel in America is being stored in pools, many of them so full they have four times the amount they were designed to hold.

The National Academy of Sciences published a report that stated terrorists could drain the water from spent fuel storage, causing the fuel rods to self-ignite and release large quantities of radioactivity, or they could steal nuclear waste to make a (dirty) bomb.

Not making a choice about where to store nuclear waste is a choice. We will expose future generations to millions of years of toxic radioactive wastes if we don’t clean them up now.

This book has a complete history of nuclear waste and what to do with it, the many issues, how we arrived at doing nothing, and has outstanding explanations of difficult topics across many fields (i.e. nuclear science, geology, hydrology, etc), as well as explaining the even more difficult political and human issues preventing us from disposing of nuclear wastes in a permanent geological repository.

The goal of anti-nuclear opponents has been to prevent a nuclear waste site from happening so that no new nuclear power plants would be built. Many states, such as California, have laws against building new nuclear plants until a waste depository exists.

The thing is, activists never needed to fear new reactors because the upfront costs are so high and the payback so delayed along with such high, uninsurable liabilities, that investors and utilities haven’t wanted to build nuclear power plants for decades.  Also, Uranium reserves are so low there’s only enough left to power existing nuclear plants for a few more decades (Tverberg), and perhaps less than that once the energy crisis hits and the energy to mine and crush millions of tons of ore is used for other purposes.

The only way new plants would ever get built is for the government to build them.  Not going to happen.  America has trillions in debt, hundreds of trillions of unfunded liabilities in the future (i.e. Medicare and other programs), the overall economic system is $600 trillion in debt, and the entire economic system is rotten and corrupt to the core with no reform in sight (see my amazon Fraud & Greed:  Wall Street, Banks, & Insurance book list  for details).  The final nail in the coffin is Fukushima — even if the government decided to nuclear power plants, public opposition would be too high.  Not to mention the most dysfunctional Congress in history.

Within the next few years (Hirsch), we will be on the exponentially declining oil curve of Hubbert’s Peak, and it will be too late to move the waste because our priorities will be rationing oil to agriculture to grow, harvest and distribute food, repair essential infrastructure, home heating and cooling, and emergency services.

Once the energy crisis hits, even if new nuclear plants are begun, which is not a given, since the crisis is oil — electricity doesn’t solve anything — building would probably stop because within the next ten years there are very good odds of another nuclear disaster: our plants are old and falling apart.

It’s really bad, much worse than most people realize. I highly recommend the 128 page report by Hirsch called “Nuclear Reactor Hazards Ongoing Dangers of Operating Nuclear Technology in the 21st Century”, or my summary of this paper at energyskeptic “Summary of Greenpeace Nuclear Reactor Hazards”.

I have nothing against nuclear power.  I don’t even see nuclear waste as the most serious kind of waste that needs to be dealt with.

But it is outrageous that we are doing nothing to protect future generations, who will be back to living in the age of wood and helpless to do anything themselves about the nuclear waste we’ve generated.  They’re going to have enough problems to cope with.

Another reason why it is unlikely many nuclear power plants will be built in the future is that they would barely make a dent in the energy crisis.  Alley points out that to both address climate change AND meet the world’s projected energy needs over the next 50 years, we would need to build ALL OF THESE (Pacala):

  • Fuel economy increased for 2 billion cars from 30 to 60 miles per gallon
  • Carbon emissions cut by 25% in buildings and appliances
  • Replace 1,400 Gigawatt coal plants with natural gas plants. These NG plants would require 4 times as much natural gas as is being produced now.
  • Capture and store 80% of CO2 from today’s coal production
  • Use 17% of all of the world’s croplands to produce biofuels (instead of food)
  • Build 2,000,000 windmills on 3% of land in America
  • Build 900 nuclear power plants to replace coal power plants (there are about 450 nuclear power plants globally now)

Plutonium waste

Plutonium waste needs to be kept away from future terrorists and dictators for the next 30,000 years.  But world-wide there’s 490 metric tons of separated plutonium at military and civilian sites, enough to make more than 60,000 nuclear weapons.  Plutonium and highly enriched uranium are located at over 100 civilian reactor plants.

In addition, there’s 1,400 tons of highly enriched uranium world-wide.  A crude nuclear bomb can be made from as little as 40 to 60 kilograms of U-235, or roughly 28,000 nuclear bombs.

30,000 Russian nuclear warheads with 100 tons of pure weapons-grade plutonium have been dismantled in Texas & Siberia since 1991, with some of this waste dispersed to Hanford, Savannah River, Los Alamos, and other DOE weapons complexes.

There’s also a huge amount of plutonium in spent fuel from civilian nuclear reactors piling up in the UK, France, Russia, Japan, and other nuclear countries. Although it wouldn’t make as good a bomb as the military plutonium, it can still make a bomb, and certainly a dirty bomb.

A National Academy of Sciences (NAS) study group considered 30 different ways of getting rid of excess plutonium, and in the end said that only 2 of these were worth consideration (both of which would end up in a geologic repository).

The first is to mix plutonium and uranium together (MOX), burn them in a commercial reactor, and generate electricity.  The resulting waste would be too hot to touch, so dangerous no one could get near it, not even after 50.  The containers would be too large to make off with as well.

The second option would be to vitrify plutonium with highly radioactive waste at the Hanford or Savannah River sites, and turn it into giant glass logs.  Some of the issues with this were unknown criticality, if it could still be recovered somehow to use in weapons.  The Russians were very much against this because they’d go to waste, instead of generating electricity as in the first option.

A plutonium + uranium (MOX) facility has been under construction since 2007 that’s cost $5 billion so far with no customers willing to burn the MOX fuel (Becker).

Back in 1973 a breeder reactor program that would use plutonium as the fuel used half of the total U.S. energy Research and development budget. Glenn T. Seaborg was it’s most passionate promoter because he felt “that he had discovered a new element that would be the salvation of mankind.” He expected the USA to get 70% of its electricity by the year 2000 from plutonium, and the AEC thought there’d be more than 500 breeder reactors by then, and perhaps 2,000 by 2020.

Yet at the same time, the New Yorker magazine in 1973 published an article about how anyone could figure out how to make an atom bomb from unclassified sources if they could get plutonium to build it.  Breeder reactors would create so much plutonium that even the Atomic Energy Commission thought enough would be stolen to create a black market for it.  At that time the West Valley re-processing plant couldn’t account for 2-4% of their plutonium, enough to make several bombs.

President Jimmy Carter, a nuclear engineer, and 21 influential scientists, economists, and politicians were so worried about proliferation of potential bomb material that Carter stopped commercial reprocessing.  President Reagan tried to reverse this by encouraging private industry to take over, but no companies were willing to take the risk.

Reagan’s Secretary of Energy, a former dentist, stirred up controversy when he proposed that the plutonium from the nuclear waste of utilities be extracted to make bombs.  NRC Commissioner Peter Bradford wryly noted that customers would not like to think that every time they turned on their lights they were also helping to make atomic bombs.

France, Russia, Japan, India, and the UK (and soon China) reprocess their nuclear waste one time only (too hard and expensive to do a 2nd time).  They’ve all created more MOX fuel than they can burn, which has led to increasing stockpiles of plutonium (fissilematerials.org).

Spent nuclear fuel

Nuclear waste is one million times more radioactive than the original uranium fuel rods.  If left out in the air, the metal surrounding the nuclear waste would melt or self-ignite, so spent fuel must be immediately put into water to both cool it down and block the radiation.  After a year the heat drops 99%, and five years later by another factor of five, yet even then, it’s still very hot.

Why you should be afraid of nuclear waste

  • The shorter the half-life the more radiation.  So thorium-234, with a half-life of 24 days, is more radioactive than uranium-238, with a half-life of 4.5 billion years
  • A rough rule is that the amount remaining after 10 half-lives is small enough not to worry about.
  • The worst high-level wastes are cesium-137 and strontium-90, which last for hundreds of years, with half-lives of 30 years.  They’re 100 million times more radioactive than uranium. 99% of the radioactivity at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation is due to these 2 isotopes alone
  • Cesium is extremely dangerous because it emits gamma and beta radiation.  It’s both highly reactive and soluble in water, and easily absorbed by plants and animals, where it goes up the food chain. If we breathe, eat, or drink any, it becomes part of our stomach, intestines, liver, spleen, and muscles, where it continues to emit harmful radiation.
  • Strontium is dangerous because it also can get into living organisms, and it’s so similar to calcium that it replaces the calcium in our bones and teeth for years, potentially causing cancer as it emits radiation (as does radium)
  • After cesium-137 and strontium-90 disappear, the worst wastes are the 1% comprised of the transuranics neptunium, plutonium, americium, technetium-99 (half-life 211,100 years) and iodine-129 with a half-life of 16 million years. Both technetium and iodine are very soluble and mobile in groundwater, which makes then a huge long-term worry — for millions of years.

Curies (millions)     Radioactive Waste

  • 3                      U.S. defense wastes released into environment (as of 1996)
  • 4                      Ocean dumping
  • 50                    Buried low-level waste
  • 100                  Chernobyl (1986)
  • 110                  Hanford releases to Columbia River 1944-1971
  • 800                  Tanks at Hanford, Savannah River, and Idaho (as of 2006)
  • 1,700               Russian defense wastes released into the environment (as of 1996)
  • 3,000               Uranium mine and mill tailings
  • 40,000             U.S. commercial spent fuel (2010)

If you live anywhere near the Hanford, Savannah River, or Idaho National laboratory facilities, you may want to read Chapter 5, which are likely to make you want to move away, so this could be a very expensive chapter to read.

Low Level Radioactive Waste (LLRW)

There’s also quite a lot of LLRW such as uranium mill tailings and medical and hospital wastes, but by far the largest amount are the components of nuclear power plants themselves, which become radioactive over time.  These wastes used to be dumped into big trenches all over the country, and no records were kept.  Finally a decent site, Ward Valley in California, which was far from populated areas, where no water could carry the wastes away, was found and studied extensively, but activists and politicians prevented it from opening.  So just like the extremely dangerous millions-of-years-long waste sitting at hundreds of nuclear plants around the world, low level waste that is also toxic is also waiting for a safer place to be buried.

After decades of studies and being stopped numerous times over six different presidential administrations, one place was finally constructed for long-lived radioactive waste: a Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad.  It does not take spent nuclear fuel, only waste about 1,000 times less radioactive.  This waste will last more than 10,000 years, far longer than any civilization has lasted.

Why not recycle or reprocess the spent fuel?

It seems like such a waste to not do this, since the spent fuel still has 95% of the original uranium as well as some plutonium that’s being “thrown away”.

But it turns out that reprocessing is technologically complex, very expensive, prone to accidents, quite messy, very modest savings of uranium—about 15 to 20%, and still doesn’t do much for the waste problem.

Expensive and/or doesn’t work. One of the few plants (near Buffalo New York), that reprocessed fuel was shut down, and it’s expected to take 40 years and over $5 billion (2006 dollars) to clean it up. A second plant was shut down after $64 million was spent because it never worked, and after $250 million, a third plant never opened.

Causes additional waste.  Reprocessing causes the release of gaseous radionuclides that must be captured, plus a lot of transuranic waste – it’s pretty much a wash.

Can only be reprocessed once.  After France creates MOX fuel, it’s so difficult to reprocess again that it’s shipped back to the reprocessing facility for indefinite storage.

Fast (Breeder) reactors aren’t a silver bullet.  We don’t have them despite 62 years of research, but even we figured out how to make them work, you’d need 16 cycles over 96 years to get a 100-fold mass reduction for just one batch of fuel. We don’t know how to do that yet, and we’d still be stuck with the worst long-lived fusion products that last millions of years and mobile in groundwater.  President George Bush tried to get a program to get a fast breeder program started in 2006 (GNEP), but the National Academy of Science committee was unanimous in rejecting this program and funding was gutted.

Why not use Fast (Breeder) reactors to make remaining supplies last for millennia and reduce nuclear waste?

Not only would a fast reactor burn more plutonium than is bred, it also converts the most toxic remains to shorter-lived radionuclides.

But despite 62 years of research and billions of dollars since the first reactor (Zinn’s EBR-I), not one fast reactor has been succeeded on a commercial scale, because they’re expensive, complicated, likely to be shut down a long time after the slightest malfunction, and take a long time to repair.  The first commercial fast-breeder (Enrico-Fermi in Michigan) shut down after a partial meltdown and other problems.  Clinch River was stopped in 1983 after cost overruns and worry about nuclear proliferation.

China, India, and Russia haven’t given up, but they’re building prototypes and experimental reactors, which are not a commercial level yet.

Japan, France, and Germany have stopped their programs:

  • Japan spent $6 billion on the Monju fast-breeder but it was shut down after just one year in 1995 after a sodium leak caused a large fire. Japan tried again in 2010, but another accident shut it down. Overall the reactor has only generated electricity for one hour so far. After Fukushima, it’s unlikely Japan will ever try to build a breeder reactor.
  • Germany spent $4 billion on their Kalkar fast reactor, but never put it online.
  • France’s small-scale Phenix was shut down in 2009. And their full-scale prototype was shut down in 1997, after befalling various disasters – the sodium cooling system had corrosion and leaks, heavy snowfall caused structural damage, and other problems.

The history of the search for nuclear waste disposal

Originally, back in 1957, it was thought that the waste would only need to be stored for 600 years or less.  No one had any idea that hundreds of thousands of years of safety would be ideal.  And it took decades for this understanding to sink in.

M. King Hubbert, who is credited with being the first scientist to go on record about Peak Oil in the United States in the 50s, was on the nuclear waste storage committee at the National Academies of Science (NAS).  Hubbert wanted the storage to be in the best possible geologic location, but the Atomic Energy Commission fought hard for the wastes to be put in repositories at existing atomic weapons facilities.

The NAS committee felt strongly that no nuclear power plants should be built until a safe place to put nuclear wastes was found.  McCone, the head of the AEC, who’d tried to get 10 Caltech scientists labeled as Communists and fired when they objected to the radioactive fallout from nuclear testing, fought to have their safe waste storage recommendation removed from their report.  They’d written that “none of the major sites at which radioactive wastes are being stored is geologically suited for safe disposal”.   The AEC suppressed the report and disbanded the NAS committee.

Complacency & Secrecy

From the start in 1959, experts at the national laboratories, universities, and industry told the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy that a solution to the waste problem was possible, so congress dropped this as an issue to worry about until 1975.

Also, the atomic bomb and nuclear business in general were shrouded in secrecy, even politicians were kept out of the loop until the 1970s, when Senator Muskie and others began asking serious questions.

Some of the earliest waste disposal ideas

  • Dehumanize a belt across the entire 38th parallel of the Korean peninsula to prevent Communist attacks from the North, which would also serve as a warning to other nations
  • Drop radioactive waste products over enemy territory
  • Missiles with radioactive waste great enough to kill large populations in big cities
  • Shoot radioactive waste into space, send them to the moon
  • Sink it in the polar ice caps where the heat would make it melt its way through to the bottom of the ice sheet
  • Bury it beneath a remote island. No: possible seismic activity, tsunamis, rising sea levels, NIMBY, etc.
  • Deep well injection, like the oil industry does to use salty water to drive oil toward a producing well
  • Rock melting: use an underground nuclear bomb to create a cavity deep underground, fill it with water to cool the waste, then the water would boil off and the rocks above would melt and seal the wastes in

Salt Beds – the Good

It was assumed that salt beds would be safe because the can be hundreds, even thousands of feet thick under huge areas.  Salt dissolves easily in water, so a thick deposit meant that there hadn’t been groundwater for the millions of years needed to form them and tend to be in areas free of earthquakes.  Salt is equal to concrete in radiation shielding, plastic enough to seal up after a fracture, and conducts heat better than rock which helps solve the issues of overheating from the nuclear waste.

Salt Beds – the Bad

When water gets in very corrosive saline brines that migrate towards heat are formed, which would corrode the waste containers. If radionuclides escaped, salt is not good at holding onto them, it’s like teflon.  Ideally you’d want to have waste in a kind of rock that was god at sorption (attachment onto the mineral surfaces), because that can delay or even stop subsurface contaminant movement.

Despite this, the Lyons salt beds were almost used, until it was found that 26 exploratory oil and gas wells had been drilled there and  would be hard to plug up, plus 175,000 gallons of water had disappeared down them during hydraulic fracturing at a nearby mine and no one knew where the missing water was.

Drawbacks to ocean disposal

If we wanted to put all the nuclear waste into the ocean, we’d need a volume equal to about 5% to dilute the waste to safe levels – an amount of water larger than all the fresh water in lakes, rivers, groundwater, glaciers, and the polar ice caps.

  1. Escaped radioactive material would be eaten by plankton and concentrated up the food chain.
  2. Ocean currents will carry escaped contaminants long distances.  A year after the Bikini atoll nuclear test, contaminated water had spread to over 1 million square miles.
  3. Obviously surface waters would be a bad choice, that’s where the fish are. But even in the depths of the Mariana Trench, 7 miles below the surface, it was clear that eventually any nuclear wastes dumped there would eventually make their way back up to the surface.

Despite these drawbacks, the United states dumped low-level waste in 87,000 steel drum containers 50 miles offshore the California coast and the Atlantic ocean (the majority of them) between 1946 and 1970.  Meanwhile, 14 European countries were doing this as well.  It wasn’t until the early 1960s that the public began to object to ocean dumping, especially as toxic wastes floated to shore and other episodes occurred.  Even France got into the act and dumped quite a bit into the Mediterranean Sea.  Jacques Cousteau was one of the leaders of the anti-dumping movement, which is part of what led to his international fame (even before he was well-known for his underwater films).

The Soviet Union was by far the biggest dumper – including 16 nuclear reactors from submarines and much other waste as well, about twice as much as all other countries combined, because it was cheaper and easier.  After the collapse in 1991 the power was cut to aging nuclear submarines that weren’t paying their bills, despite the consequences of what would happen if they didn’t keep their reactors cooled!  So one of the submarines began hauling potatoes to pay the electric bills.

Finally in 1993, after many other incidents listed in the book, 37 nations voted to stop ocean dumping, though Greenpeace has caught the Japanese secretly dumping wastes, but at least it’s not tolerated any longer, though hard to enforce.

Seabed floor

  • First proposed in 1973 in the clays of the deep-sea floor, so even if radioactive particles escaped, they’d cling tightly to the clay.
  • They’re the least desired real estate on the planet
  • The have low permeability to water
  • The plasticity to seal any cracks around a waste container
  • Escaped contaminants aren’t likely to move more than a few meters even after 100,000 years

Possible problems

  • How would the heat affect water and chemical movement within the clay
  • Organisms living in the clays might transport waste to the seafloor
  • Strong currants might carry clay-bound radionuclides to the ocean surface
  • The risks of transporting the wastes not only across land but over the ocean, where accidents are even more likely than on land
  • If there were an accident, the wastes couldn’t be retrieved

In 1986 this idea was abandoned and never tested.  When the main proponent, Charles Hollister died in 1999, the possibility of subseabed disposal died as well.  It might have been the best possible way to go, but it was never tested.

Interim site

The federal government was legally obligated to find a place to store spent nuclear fuel back in 1998, and has been sued ever since for $760 million so far and another $13 billion of future liability costs.  Out of desperation some are proposing an interim site, but of course, no state wants one lest it become the permanent site.  Some Native American tribes were willing to be the location (since this would pay them well), but the states where the reservations existed (New Mexico, Utah, and Nevada) found ways to prevent that from happening.

Not having a permanent repository, or even an interim site, made it very hard for the nuclear industry to expand nuclear power.

Yucca Mountain

In 1975 it was decided that 6 sites would be studied as possible repositories, but by 1987 only one site was under consideration: Yucca Mountain.  Even in 1976 Yucca Mountain seemed like a good location, since 900 man-years of data collection and interpretation in the fields of hydrology, geology, and geophysics has already been done, and there was already a lot of radiation contamination in the area from the nuclear testing.

Of course politics played a big role too, since the other 12 possible repository states fought hard to keep from becoming a permanent or interim solution.  Salt: Louisiana, Mississippi Texas, Utah; Precambrian granite: Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin; Interim (due to defunct reprocessing facilities): Illinois, New York, South Carolina.

It was clear from the beginning that a 100% guaranteed perfectly safe site was impossible, but opponents began demanding total certainty, an impossible imperative.

And then total disaster – a federal court ruled in 2004 that Yucca Mountain must be safe not for 10,000 years, but one million years.  This is an impossible amount of time to grasp, let alone guarantee wastes be safe for.  Consider that just 150 years ago we traveled in horse-drawn carts on muddy tracks, 10,000 years ago agriculture was invented, and 40,000 years ago Homo sapiens reached Europe from Africa.  That’s only 5% of 1 million years.

It is impossible to find a site anywhere in the world that’s guaranteed to be safe for 1 million years. Nor is there enough time to do hundreds of studies at other sites.  We don’t have decades to dawdle.  Peak fossil fuels are here (not just oil, but coal and natural gas as well).

To address the million year challenge at Yucca Mountain, for the next 25 years, hundreds of scientists brainstormed 1,200 Features, Events, and Processes (FEPS) that might happen, plus hundreds more specific to the Yucca Mountain site.  Then each FEP, and each combination of FEP were analyzed using computer models and scenarios.

Here’s a list of just a few of the FEPs studied.  The details are too complicated to review, read the book to learn more about the nuances and complexities of these issues:  the tectonic setting and susceptibility to earthquakes (pp. 293-296), future volcanic intrusions and eruptions (pp 289-293), upwelling water (pp. 297-301), fluid inclusions (pp. 301-305), how would the hot waste interact with the host rock, could heat from the waste weaken the host rock, would fractured rock allow too much oxygen to be present and corrode the waste containers or would fractures be a blessing so that in a cooler, wetter future, water would drain away from the nuclear wastes, waste packages failing from defective welds, future humans drilling a hole into the repository, how much water gets into the mountain, where does it go, how fast does it get there, what are the temperature and chemical composition of water and wastes as it travels through the rock, how would climate change affect rainfall, if rain increased and got down to the repository what would happen, how long would it take for waste to seep out at springs, how fast does water move through the unsaturated zone, how fast do canisters and spent fuel cladding corrode, when the waste packaging failed, would the sorption characteristics of the rock keep the waste from spreading, what effect would the 1,000 years of heat (above boiling) generated by the wastes do to water and surrounding rocks, how quickly are exposed radionuclides moved away by the water, how fast does the contaminated water move to the water table and beyond Yucca mountain, how well do natural and engineered barriers do in slowing down this down, and thousands more scenarios or combinations of scenarios.

One by one these  issues were addressed. A quick summary of just a few:

  • Volcanic activity stopped millions of years ago
  • Earthquakes mainly affect the land surface — not deep underground storage
  • Waste could be stored 1,000 feet below the land surface yet still be 1,000 feet above the water table in an area with little water and only a few inches of rain a year.  Rain was not likely to travel 1,000 feet down.
  • The entire area is a closed basin. No surface water leaves the area.  The Colorado River is more than 100 miles away.
  • There’s no gold, silver, or oil to tempt future generations to dig or drill into the nuclear waste.
  • The mountain is made of a rock that makes tunneling easy yet at the same time tough enough to form stable walls that are unlikely to collapse.

Of course there are risks, but the risk is trivial compared to not storing nuclear  wastes where they’re vulnerable to being stolen, terrorism, future generations of mankind unaware of the hazards, hurricanes, tornadoes, flooding, sea level rise, power outages, etc.  I know I repeat myself, but this is the main issue.

The fact that the art work has survived over 25,000 years in dozens of caves in southern France, where 3 times as much rain falls as in Nevada is another indication that the cave-like storage area is probably good for many millennia.

After waste was put into the tunnels 1,000 feet below the surface of Yucca Mountain, the repository would not be sealed for 50 to 300 years so scientists could monitor the waste, fix any possible problems that arose, and potentially retrieve waste.  During this time, the heat of the radioactive decay would be removed by natural and forced ventilation.  Once sealed up, the temperatures would rapidly increase and remain about the boiling point of water for around 1,000 years.

After 10,000 years plutonium will be 90% of the remaining waste.

Yucca mountain ended up being the most studied place on the planet. 

Yucca mountain is the the best possible place to put nuclear waste.

Hundreds of studies done by university, state, federal government agency, and industry scientists.  This information was used to create the Department of Energy’s license application in 2008 and all of this information from decades of work was condensed down to 8,600 pages that weighed 110 pounds.   You can find the 109 page list of these studies at: http://pbadupws.nrc.gov/docs/ML0828/ML082890329.pdf

How Yucca Mountain got a bad rap

Most of the public still believes there are tremendous issues with volcanism, earthquakes, and so on, and that the only reason Yucca Mountain was under consideration was because of being the weakest state politically.

Some of this is due to New York Times science writer William J. Broad, who not just once, but twice, wrote articles that were both incorrect and inflammatory.

The first time was in 1990 Broad when he reported the findings of geologist Jerry Szymanski, who claimed that if the repository were ever flooded hot corrosive liquids would cause vast calamities that would spread throughout Nevada and California.  But when his paper was peer-reviewed by over 40 scientists, it failed.  Yet Broad not only write about Szymanski as if he were a modern folk hero, Broad falsely proclaimed that Yucca Mountain would become the “most dangerous nuclear facility in the world”.  The tiny amount of space given to other scientists in the rebuttal was so biased that it didn’t override the overwhelming impression given to readers that a terrible disaster was going to happen which would be forced upon the public by a government conspiracy.  Twenty scientists wrote a letter to the New York Times to express their dismay at the inflammatory article, at how biased the “scientific evidence” was, and the implication that scientists at the USGS and DOE were incompetent or had compromised their integrity for fear of losing their jobs.  Only 2 paragraphs of their letter were printed.  In the end, after $20 million more of studies, scientists concluded that there was no evidence of hydrothermal activity at Yucca Mountain the past 5 million years – Szymanski’s hypothesis of upwelling was wrong.

In 1995, Broad again wrote an incorrect and inflammatory article which stated that a nuclear explosion might possibly occur in the waste, despite many scientists soundly rejecting this hypothesis.  Broad was asked not to print this before the issues were published in a peer-reviewed publication. Broad and the New York Times didn’t need to be told to wait — science writers do not print stories before peer-reviewed publication. To do is considered a serious ethical lapse. Even though this claim had no scientific validity whatsoever, the New York Times went ahead, and never reported on any papers published after this which showed a nuclear explosion in the waste was not possible, not even a very important paper written by all of the nuclear engineering faculty at the University of California Berkeley and other experts that resoundingly showed this to be not true.

Nevadans had good reason to fight Yucca Mountain.  They didn’t have any nuclear power plants, why should they be stuck with the other 49 states wastes?  Las Vegas had suffered from years of pink clouds blowing their way from above-ground atomic bomb tests, and is now the thyroid cancer capital of the world.  I don’t blame them for having no trust in the Federal government and being tired of being nuclear guinea pigs.

Transport of nuclear waste from other states to Nevada

Nevada recruited other states to their side by pointing out that the waste would have to travel by truck or train through their states to get to Nevada.

So the National Academy of Sciences was asked to look at the safety of transporting spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste. They concluded that these shipments were low risk, which is backed up by an excellent record, none of the 3,000 shipments traveling over 1.7 million miles so far has had an accident that released radioactive waste, and nuclear waste is far less risky than the million rail cars a year with hazardous materials.

Clearly putting the waste in just one facility in a remote part of America would be easier to protect than the over 100 nuclear power plants where the waste was accumulating, but that argument got lost in the political battles and environmental protests.

Yucca Mountain shut down after 25 years and $10 Billion spent

In march 2009 Secretary of Energy Steven Chu announced that Yucca Mountain was not an option anymore.

Alley says that Yucca Mountain was closed as political payoff to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV). Nevada was a swing state and Obama needed Harry Reid to help him with health care, climate change, and regulation of the financial industry.  With Reid up for election in 2010, a dead Yucca Mountain could be the factor that would get Reid re-elected.

A new Blue Ribbon Commission was formed and they didn’t come up with any new ideas.  Even if they had come up with an ideal waste site, this is the least likely congress in American history to be able to agree on anything.  Nor is nuclear waste even on their plates, there are far too many other issues needing their attention.

Conclusion

Dr. Roger Revelle, at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, thought it wouldn’t be long before humans depleted all of the world’s mineral deposits and other natural resources.  They’d need nuclear energy to create minerals from scratch and to provide energy.  Without atomic energy, he worried that “our children’s children would look forward only to a slow decline into misery and fear”.

A few quotes from the book:

“The technical characteristics of nuclear waste make the disposal problem difficult, yet it is the human factors that have made it intractable.  These include a lack of interest in solving the problem, unrealistic demands for earth-science predictions far into the future, eroding confidence in government and institutions, confusion about which “experts” to trust, and the ever present NIMS and NIMBY. A better understanding of these human elements is imperative to avoid past failings (p. 322)”.

“Humans continue to deplete the world’s resources, cause mass extinction of species, destroy the ocean’s fisheries, destabilize the world’s climate, and oison the environment with persistent toxic chemicals – many of which will outlive the radioactive ones….Humans have given little thought for the next few generations, let alone many thousands of years into the future (p. 323)”.

“It is extraordinarily difficult (if not downright impossible) to address the complex problem of high-level nuclear waste in a society where a large percentage of the public places little or no value on facts.  Today’s culture of infotainment, sound bites, fundamentalist religion, ideological extremism and rigidity, and the politics of fear and hate impairs reasoning and thoughtful debate. As an astounding case in point, contemporary Americans are as likely to believe in flying saucers as in evolution. Depending on how the questions are worded, roughly 30-40% of Americans believe in each.  When asked about evolution, President George W. Bush hedged his bets, saying the “jury is still out.” (p. 327).

“Science literacy is much more than number crunching and memorizing facts. It requires a basic understanding of the scientific process and an appreciation for the fact that the more scientists learn, the more questions there are to ask. Without an understanding and respect for this process, the public is vulnerable to self-proclaimed experts who side-track efforts through unsubstantiated claims; resort to personal attacks on the integrity of scientists whose findings disagree with their agenda; and point to minor errors or inconsistencies as proof that the whole system is a conspiracy to deceive.  All too often, the media have exacerbated the problem (p. 328).

Appendix –other items of interest to me in this book

After the first energy crisis, what Plan B was:

  • Oil shale oil and gas supplies domestically
  • Shifting from oil and gas to coal so we could make a transition to heavy reliance on nuclear power
  • Continued research on breeder reactors
  • Conservation: efficient buildings, etc
  • Solar energy research increased by a very small part of overall energy program
  • Wind and biofuels: not under consideration
  • Fusion: in the end, nuclear fusion would solve all of our energy problems.

Source: Ray, D. L. 1973. The nation’s energy future, a report to Richard M. Nixon. US Atomic Energy Commission

Nixon’s project independence: the problem with this was described by Robert Gillette in Science magazine as requiring too many tough decisions – new technology is only half the battle, to actually implement it would require political decisions about oil shale leasing, power plant siting, and other decisions outside of research and development.  The upshot being that President Nixon couldn’t buy his way into energy independence.  Nixon ended up backing off of self-sufficiency to reducing our dependence on insecure foreign energy sources.

For about $7 billion, the nuclear waste in spent pools could be put into dry casks, but they have only a design life of 50 years, so that’s not a good long-term solution – it would be better to get spent fuel into permanent geological storage as soon as possible.   There are many problems with dry casks, so although the NRC speculates they could last longer than 50 years, numerous problems after testing for just 15 years with much less cooler waste than what’s out there make kicking the can down the road by leaving waste in canisters rather than a repository is no solution at all.  Cask makers and utilities are also unhappy that some people, like Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) propose this as being the best option.

Uranium production today: 60% from Canada, Australia, Kazakhstan, 4% United States.

After India successfully exploded their first bomb, the secret message to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was “The Buddha is smiling.”

One really weird thing about nuclear decay is that as an element decays, it turns into other elements both lower and higher in the periodic table (i.e. radium-226 decays down to radon-222, cesium-137 can move up to barium-137).

You need at least an inch of heavy metal to protect you from gamma radiation, which can penetrate deeply into your body. Beta can penetrate your skin a small fraction of an inch, and alpha can’t penetrate the outer layers of your skin.  The problem is mainly that you might breathe, drink, or radioactive particles, where they can do a lot of damage.

Production of military fissile materials continues in India, which is producing plutonium and HEU for naval propulsion, Pakistan, which produces plutonium and HEU for weapons, Israel, which is believed to produce plutonium. North Korea  has the capability to produce weapon-grade plutonium and highly-enriched uranium.

What are other countries doing?

World-wide, another 270,000 tons of waste are vulnerable to terrorists, tsunamis, floods, rising sea levels, hurricanes, electric grid outages, and other disasters.

In 2001 Russian president Putin announced that any nation could send them spent fuel for indefinite storage on Russian territory.  But it isn’t likely we’d take them up on that given our fears of nuclear proliferation and terrorist access to this material.

Pages (paragraph) 18(3), 19(5, L) page 20 France Sweden, 25(3, 4) Russia , 315 (3)- 316(1), 316(2)-317(1) why Sweden good, USA bad, 318 (4) summary, 322 (3) 60 new plants being built in 15 countries,

France, Russia, the United Kingdom, Japan, and India operate civilian reprocessing facilities that separate plutonium from spent fuel of power reactors. China is operating a pilot civilian reprocessing facility.

Twelve countries – Russia, the United States, France, the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands (all three are in the URENCO consortium), Japan, Argentina, Brazil, India, Pakistan, and Iran – operate uranium enrichment facilities. North Korea is also believed to have an operational uranium enrichment plant.

References

Becker, J. New Doubts About Turning Plutonium Into a Fuel. New York Times 10 Apr 2011.

Blue ribbon commission on America’s nuclear future. Report to the Secretary of Energy. 2012.

Bruno, J. Spent Nuclear Fuel. Elements Vol 2. 2006

Dittmar, M.  The End of Cheap Uranium. Science of The Total Environment. Vol 4641-62 (792-98), September 2013

Fissilematerials.org. Global Fissile Material Report 2013. Increasing Transparency of Nuclear Warhead and Fissile Material Stocks as a Step toward Disarmament. 2013.

Gabriel, S. Building future nuclear power fleets: The available uranium resources constraint. Resources Policy, vol 38 December 2013

Hirsch, R. L. et al. The Impending World Energy Mess. What it is and what it means to YOU!. 2010.

Mayumi, K. Uranium reserve, nuclear fuel cycle delusion, CO2 emissions from the sea, and electricity supply: Reflections after the fuel meltdown of the Fukushima Nuclear Power Units. Ecological Economics, vol 73, 15 January 2012

Pacala, S. et al. Stabilization wedges: solving the climate problem for the next 50 years with current technologies. Science 305: 968-972. 2004.

Tverberg, G (Gail the Actuary). How Long Before Uranium Shortages? theoildrum.com. 2009.

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4 Responses to Book review of “Too Hot to Touch: The Problem of High-Level Nuclear Waste”

  1. Sarah Ferguson says:

    CNN just ran a special report showing an image of nuclear waste safely and neatly contained in containers that it said would take up no more than the size of a football field and talked as if the stuff could be endlessly recycled. Have you seen this report, and if so, care to comment?

    • energyskeptic says:

      This book spends a lot of time covering recycling of fuel, and I briefly mention this in my book review as well. The book and my review also discuss how long the best possible container would last (50 years at most). CNN is not a peer-reviewed source of information, what would be interesting to know is if their report was based on a peer-reviewed study, then we could see if there was any merit to their special report.

  2. George Vye says:

    Nice review, Alice. Up to your usual standard. But only yesterday my local newspaper published an article by a leading economist from a nearby university assuring us that the economy was finally on the upswing and that pretty soon we would be rolling in clover again, or something like that. So why sweat a little nuclear waste, or a few jellyfish, for that matter? When we finish trashing this little planet we’ll just go find another one, according to Hawking. Makes me wanna hawk right now.

    Cheers, George

  3. Superb review, thanks so much.

    I’m curious about the 2004 federal court ruling about Yucca Mountain – how could the courts represent the future generations of citizens in matters of nuclear waste, yet ignore future damage by CO2 emissions? Is it because it remains untested?

    I thought that generally courts refuse to protect the rights of the future citizens. This might be worth further exploration.