Generations of on-site storage remain even if Yucca opens

by Barry Smith


A recent article by Los Angeles Times reporter Ralph Vartabedian does a good job of describing the enormity of the problem facing the nation's nuclear-power industry without Yucca Mountain.

And, from a Nevadan's point of view, the enormity of the problem even with a waste repository at Yucca.

There are roughly 50,000 tons of nuclear waste spread around the country - dangerous, deadly stuff that is in some measure vulnerable to terrorist attack.

Yucca Mountain is being designed to hold 77,000 tons of waste. By the time it could be ready to accept waste - 2012 at the earliest - there could be about 60,000 tons of waste waiting in more than 30 states, according to Vartabedian, as power plants generate about 2,000 more tons a year.

Do the math. On-site storage is going to be a reality for the next few generations.

On the day Yucca Mountain opens, Vartabedian quotes an Energy Department official, it will be too small to handle all the waste.

"There is no Plan B," he writes. "Under federal law, the department can pursue only Yucca Mountain."

In my mind, I guess, I saw these trains and trucks from all over the country converging on Yucca Mountain with the nation's nuclear waste. I knew it would take a long time, but I'd never really considered how long.

Yucca Mountain is designed to process 3,000 tons a year, Vartabedian reports. So if nuclear power plants keep generating about 2,000 tons a year, the best they can do at Yucca is catch up by 1,000 tons a year.

With the backlog, that means roughly 60 years. And by then, Yucca Mountain is long since full.

To some, that means Yucca Mountain needs to push forward just as soon as possible. The delays have just made the problem worse.

To me, that means the plan to store the nation's waste in one place in the Nevada desert needs to be scrapped. And the sooner the better.

Vartabedian is right when he says there is no Plan B. That's just one of the consequences of the political scam which targeted Nevada. Congress made a promise to solve the nuclear industry's waste problem - and has been collecting the money from ratepayers for decades - and decided to build one basket that won't hold all the eggs.

The logic of the solution seems clear to me, at least for the next 100 years: Keep the waste on site.

The casks being designed for Yucca Mountain will work anywhere. The isolated spot in the desert north of Las Vegas was selected because it would act as a "geological barrier," but the research done there the last 10 years shows that's not the case. The act of groundwater eroding the casks, and the possibilities of earthquakes, means Yucca Mountain is no more suitable a site than a whole lot of other places.

The other argument often used to justify Yucca Mountain is that having the nuclear waste in a central location makes it easier to guard, less vulnerable to terrorists.

But as we can see from the information above, while there would be a whole lot of radioactive waste at Yucca Mountain, there would also be a whole lot of nuclear waste still scattered across the countryside. The nuclear-energy plants are still going to need security.

However, by building a central processing and storage site - in a state that produces no nuclear energy, I might add - the federal government creates the need to move all that radioactive waste across the country, thousands of miles, every day. Seems to be we haven't lessened the security risk; we've increased it dramatically.

No, I don't want to see nuclear waste shipped to Nevada. No more than the states producing nuclear waste want to keep it.

"I want the waste off the shores of Lake Michigan," Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., told Vartabedian. Upton's district includes two nuclear plants built on the lake's eastern boundary. "Ultimately, there is a safety problem."

Yes, there is a huge problem. It grows every day. But Yucca Mountain isn't the answer. Until Congress recognizes that fact, it's no closer to a solution.

n Barry Smith is editor of the Nevada Appeal. Contact him at or 881-1221.


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