Costly delays at Yucca Mountain

Mosque and power lines

Persistent delays at Yucca Mountain – the Congressionally appointed future home for American nuclear waste – could prove very expensive to taxpayers. Under an agreement between nuclear power utilities and the Department of Energy, firms are charged 1/10th of a cent per kilowatt hour for waste disposal. Yucca Mountain was meant to be open and accepting fuel in 1998.

So far, the delay has cost the American Treasury $342 million in rebates so far, and is projected to cost $11 billion if the facility doesn’t open before 2020. Given the tooth-and-nail resistance from the Nevada government, and the history of lengthy lawsuits in the United States, it’s not impossible that such a delay will occur. Meanwhile, wastes continue to be stored in relatively expensive and high-maintenance cooling ponds and dry storage casks. In the whole mess, consumers lose out twice. The costs for eventual disposal imposed on utilities were passed on to them; as taxpayers, they will also end up paying most of the cost for Yucca Mountain or whatever alternative long-term disposal facility is eventually used.

The situation could be even worse than it seems. Both Clinton and Obama have announced their opposition to the project. Presumably, having one of them win the presidency would return the whole process to the preliminary site selection phase, back where it was thirty years ago. Regardless of one’s position on nuclear power, the need to store the wastes that exist in a safe, economically viable, and long-term way is inescapable. Keeping the waste in a large number of small sites increases both costs and risks.

Canada also lacks a facility for the long-term storage of radioactive wastes.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

23 thoughts on “Costly delays at Yucca Mountain”

  1. “Each reactor typically creates about 20 tons of waste a year, which is approximately two new casks, at roughly $1 million each. If a repository or interim site opened, clearing the backlog would take decades, experts say. At present, waste is in temporary storage at 122 sites in 39 states.

    The government has spent $11 billion on Yucca Mountain, Mr. Sproat said. The project has dragged on so long that some of the research data is stored on obsolete computers that must be replaced, program officials said.”

  2. Nice photo – though I would crop it just left of the minaret – excluding the dome and focusing on the power lines.

  3. Regardless of one’s position on nuclear power, the need to store the wastes that exist in a safe, economically viable, and long-term way is inescapable.

    True, but there is a danger that forcing Yucca Mountain open when it isn’t safe will just encourage the production of even more nuclear waste that we don’t know how to deal with. The current plans aren’t able to provide adequate guarantees over the full dangerous span of the worst wastes.

  4. Not in My Back Yucca
    What are our alternatives for storing radioactive waste?
    By Brendan I. Koerner
    Posted Tuesday, April 15, 2008, at 8:11 AM ET

    It seems like the good citizens of Nevada would sooner elect an orangutan as governor than let the federal government fill Yucca Mountain with radioactive waste. Can’t blame them, I guess, but that spent nuclear fuel has to go somewhere. What, then, are the alternatives to stashing it beneath Yucca Mountain?

  5. NUCLEAR WASTE: Forget the high-tech encapsulation systems and just bury it, professor says (06/25/2008)

    Lisa Haidostian, ClimateWire reporter

    Burying nuclear waste deep below the earth’s surface should result in “much less than” one death per year in the United States, a nuclear energy expert said yesterday.

    The question of what to do with nuclear waste has long been seen as the roadblock to expanded development of a nuclear energy program in the United States, but the answer, according to Bernard Cohen, a professor emeritus of physics at the University of Pittsburgh, is “rational,” “easy to defend,” “inexpensive” and not so complicated.

    In a Marshall Institute policy outlook called “Radioactive Waste Disposal: Nature’s Way vs. Government’s Way,” Cohen asserts that instead of burying the waste using “elaborate artificial encapsulation,” scientists and policymakers should take their cue from the natural processes that have dictated the path of radioactive materials for millions of years.

    The U.S. Department of Energy has been involved for years in constructing an underground tunnel complex in Nevada’s Yucca Mountain, where the spent fuel rods from nuclear power plants would be sealed in chambers and stored in canisters that are designed to resist water intrusion and heat.

    The fear, of course, is that over time radioactive waste can leak into the groundwater supply and eventually be ingested by people via potable water, exposing their organs to the radiation and causing cancer.

    A ‘simple’ alternative to Yucca Mountain?

    But Cohen asserts that by burying the waste about 2,000 feet into the earth, nature will “treat it as it treats other rocks containing radioactive materials,” and it would be “as secure from being dissolved [into the groundwater stream] as ordinary rock.”

    As an example, Cohen cites the Cigar Lake deposit in northern Saskatchewan, Canada, which contains 11 percent of the world’s known uranium reserves and consists of uranium dioxide, the same substance as the waste material that would be buried. It has remained 430 meters (1411 feet) below the surface for 1.3 billion years, but “no uranium can be detected in the ground above the deposit,” Cohen’s paper says.

    He also explains that by determining the number of cancer deaths caused by natural radioactive materials already present in the earth, we could figure out how many deaths would be caused by adding a certain amount more of waste.

    That number is less than one a year, which, he said, is minute in comparison to the number of deaths from air pollution caused by coal-fired power plants: about 10,000 a year in the United States.

    He explained that by studying the tendencies of naturally occurring radioactive materials in the ground, much of the uncertainty that would otherwise be present in the “government’s way” scenario is eliminated.

    The main problem with the government’s current approach, which has been to “depend heavily on technology to prevent, or at least greatly delay, encounters with groundwater,” is that if the radioactive material should make contact with groundwater, it will dissolve at a significantly higher rate, posing a much greater risk than the “nature’s way” approach.

  6. Apparently, Obama’s new budget sinks the Yucca Mountain repository once and for all.

    At the very least, we need somewhere to store waste produced by existing plants in the long term. It is also likely that new nuclear plants will be built in the US, or their old ones will have their lives extended.

    Nobody wants a nuclear waste dump nearby, but cancelling this one seems like a short-sighted policy.

  7. It’s kind of funny that we consider nuclear waste dumps unnacceptable because of the long-term risk they pose, but there is far less political pressure associated with the long term risk of climate change. I suppose it’s because people can see the nuclear waste site as a “dangerous thing”, whereas climate change requires grasping complex sets of relations. Still, it seems quite irrational to me.

  8. It’s perfectly rational if you are only really concerned with your own life.

    For politicians: Opposing a specific project wins you support from locals (maybe helps you win Nevada as a whole). Not having a long-term disposal site isn’t an enormous problem for you, and your successors can blame that lack of one on you once you are safely out of politics.

    For locals: There is some danger in living near a site where such materials are stored and transported. While it’s in the nation’s interest to have a safe storage site, each particular site will be opposed by those who live near it. Since the waste comes from all over, they will always be able to argue that it is unfair to store it all near them.

  9. It also reminds me of a Yes Minister episode (“The Bed of Nails”) where Hacker gets put in charge of a coordinated national transport strategy and Sir Humphrey explains:

    “If by we you mean Britain that is perfectly true, but if by we you mean you and me and this department we need a transport policy like an aperture in the cranial cavity.”

    This is on account of how it is impossible to create such a thing without provoking opposition by stepping on someone’s toes. A nuclear waste dump is much like a coordinated transport policy, in this respect.

    As Machiavelli explained:

    “The innovator makes enemies of all those who prospered under the old order, and only lukewarm support is forthcoming from those who would prosper under the new. Their support is lukewarm partly for fear of their adversaries, who have the existing laws on their side, and partly because men are generally incredulous, never really trusting new things unless they have tested them by experience. In consequence, whenever those who oppose the changes can do so, they attack vigorously, and the defence made by the others is only lukewarm. So both the innovator and his friends come to grief.”

  10. Anticipating the next issue, hereditary monarchy is not the solution.

    For one thing, those entrusted with raising and advising a new monarch will always have interests of their own, and will tend towards raising them to defend those particular interests, rather than any general ones.

    For another, once you have a hereditary monarch, you have little recourse if they turn out to be insane, consider themselves to be god, start brutally slaughtering their enemies, and the like. Judging by people like Stalin and Robert Mugabe, such outcomes can certainly occur when one person holds absolute power for a long span of time.

    Many other arguments against the superiority of supposedly benign despots exist, and the issue has been addressed here before.

  11. “As with many countries with a significant nuclear power program, Canada has focussed its research and development efforts for the long-term management of high-level nuclear waste on the concept of Deep Geological Disposal (DGD). In 1975 the Canadian nuclear industry defined its waste-management objective as to “…isolate and contain the radioactive material so that no long term surveillance by future generations will be required and that there will be negligible risk to man and his environment at any time. … Storage underground, in deep impermeable strata, will be developed to provide ultimate isolation from the environment with the minimum of surveillance and maintenance.” [7]. In 1977 a Task Force commissioned by Energy, Mines and Resources Canada (led by Dr. F.K. Hare and known as the “Hare Report”) concluded that interim storage was safe, and recommended the permanent disposal of used nuclear fuel in granitic rock, with salt deposits as a second option [8]. This recommendation was echoed shortly afterward by a concurrent Royal Commission on Electric Power Planning (led by Dr. Arthur Porter and known as the “Porter Commission”) [9, 10].

    In response to the Hare Report, the governments of Canada and Ontario jointly established in 1978 the Canadian Nuclear Fuel Waste Management Program (CNFWMP). Under the program the federal government, through its crown corporation Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. (AECL), had responsibility for managing the program and developing the technology for long-term disposal of used nuclear fuel, while the province of Ontario, through its electrical utility Ontario Hydro (now known as Ontario Power Generation, or OPG), had responsibility for advancing the technologies of interim storage and transportation. Other partners included federal departments within Energy, Mines and Resources Canada (now Natural Resources Canada) and Environment Canada, as well as several Canadian universities and consultant companies. The governments of Canada and Ontario subsequently (1981) directed the CNFWMP to focus on a generic design that did not require a specific siting decision.

    In 1988 the CNFWMP, through AECL, submitted its generic (non-site-specific) proposal [11] for long-term nuclear used-fuel management to the federal government, which initiated an Environmental Review process that ultimately took ten years to conclude. Under the proposal, the used fuel would be placed in disposal vaults about 500 to 1000 metres deep in the granite rock of the Canadian Shield. The “formations of choice” are large, single intrusions called batholiths, formed between one and two billion years ago, and geologically stable since that time. Other criteria met by grantitic batholiths are low mineral (and therefore economic) value, and low ground-water movement rates.

    Used fuel would be encased in corrosion-resistant containers designed to last thousands of years, and surrounded by a buffer material (such as bentonite clay) that retards water migration. The vaults, tunnels, and shafts of this disposal site would be backfilled and sealed during its closure stage. The safety design of the emplacement technology has been developed with the conservative assumption that the fuel-bearing containers will only last a fraction of their design life. The technology also does not depend on long-term institutional controls, and is adaptable to future societal requirements and changes in criteria.

    A specific site has not been sought at this stage, as mandated by the joint decision of the federal and Ontario governments in 1981 to develop only generic technology for initial review. However, key site characteristics (distance from post-glacial faulting, low mineral value, low ground-water movement, size and uniform nature of plutonic rock, etc.) have been defined in preparation for the siting stage of the program.

    Depending on the size chosen for the facility, the total project cost is estimated at between CDN$9 and CDN$13 billion, spread over a 60- to 90-year period (during most of which, about 1000 people would be employed in the construction and operation). Electricity users in Ontario, Quebec, and New Brunswick currently contribute about 1% of their electricity costs towards a fund for future long-term nuclear waste disposal.”

    – cited from

    note 11 refers to:

    Atomic Energy of Canada Limited. Environmental Impact Statement on the Concept for Disposal of Canada’s Nuclear Fuel Waste. Report AECL-10711, COG-93-1. 1994.

  12. Were there any special problems with Yucca Mountain, compared with a deep repository anywhere else?

  13. It seems to me there could not be a better storage site than the Shield. A billion years of stable rock? Comparable to natural nuclear runoff after only a few hundred years?

    Good enough for me. We should built it and charge other states to use it.

  14. “The “formations of choice” are large, single intrusions called batholiths, formed between one and two billion years ago, and geologically stable since that time.”

  15. I guess it comes down to what you mean by ‘stable.’ It seems absurd to say that one formation could remain utterly unchanged as whole continents relocate. The Himalayas are just 70 million years old, while the Rockies are between 65 and 100 million years old.

    The pragmatic definition of stability is something like: “Will the forces reshaping continents over the period when the wastes will be dangerous stretch or compress the waste storage area enough to create a danger of leakage?” Given that we can’t make containers that will last long enough, it’s a question with some importance.

    By that standard, the shield is probably adequate. Indeed, some people complain that we won’t be able to access the wastes, if some future technology makes them useful.

  16. Aside from tectonic plate movement, there are continental ice sheets to consider. Provided we get climate change under control, we would expect to see several during the next half-million years. Each would depress the continent while present, then cause it to rebound when it melted (as is happening to the United Kingdom now).

  17. Good Riddance, Yucca Mountain
    Obama pulls the plug on the nuclear industry’s last best hope.
    By Timothy Noah
    Posted Tuesday, March 3, 2009, at 7:49 PM ET

    We’ve seen a lot of hyperbole lately about the significance of a presidency that’s all of six weeks old. I hesitate to add to it. But the following statement happens to be the literal truth.

    The ramifications of the 2008 presidential election will be felt for 1 million years.

    One million years is a long time. A million years ago, Homo erectus (who looked like this, not this) was getting ready to invent the hand axe and discover fire. Yet 1 million years is the length of time that the Bush administration was preparing to guarantee (apparently to our successor hominid species) the safe storage of spent nuclear fuel rods inside Nevada’s Yucca Mountain, in a waste facility whose approval had been making its way through three branches of government for a comparatively brief 32 years. The goal was to start dumping this high-level nuclear waste inside Yucca Mountain in 2020.

  18. “The “formations of choice” are large, single intrusions called batholiths, formed between one and two billion years ago, and geologically stable since that time.”

    Milan, your response to this seems like a dismissal of science to me. No one contests that other geological formations have been unstable. No one contests that plates haven’t moved. However, that doesn’t mean that some geological formations haven’t remained stable. Whether or not some geological formations might remain stable for a billion years while others change every few million is not something that anyone other than a geologist could speak authoritatively on, which is why I’m citing a report, or at least a piece of writing which was reporting a report. I couldn’t find the actual report, I don’t understand where to look for government documents.

  19. I agree that it is on a website and was probably in some kind of report. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t subject it to any critical thinking.

    It doesn’t matter, in any case. Nothing like a billion years is necessary. A mere million is sufficient for 99.93% of the radioactivity in the wastes to dissipate.

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