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What the Republican Takeover Means for American Nuclear Waste

America's new politics may mean a more dangerous Yucca Mountain.

by Michael Byrne
Nov 8 2014, 2:30pm

Image: University of Idaho

The Republican takeover of the United States Senate can only be viewed as a good thing for boosters of the country's long-foundering centralized nuclear waste depository. Yucca Mountain, a mostly-constructed, theoretically sealed tomb located about 80 miles north of the Las Vegas Valley, has been held in limbo by the Obama administration, with dethroned Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid being one of the project's most vocal opponents.

Yucca Mountain had already been at least partially reanimated as the result of a 2013 court ruling forcing the Nuclear Regulatory Commision to continue studying the project. In October, the NRC released a report, the first of several, finding that the facility is sufficiently sealed off from the environment to store nuclear waste. That conclusion in itself doesn't revive the project; for Yucca Mountain to fully get back on track, it would take congressional funding.

That funding, with Reid out as leader and Obama as lame as ducks get in American democracy, seems a whole lot more likely now. Yet, as an op-ed in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists notes, the site in reality remains not nearly as secure as it should be.

"The key design element in question is something the Energy Department calls a 'drip shield,'" explains physicist Victor Gilinsky, a former NRC member and consultant to the Yucca Mountain project, in the Bulletin. "This is a kind of massive, corrosion-resistant titanium alloy mailbox that is supposed to sit over each of the thousands of waste canisters in Yucca Mountain's underground tunnels. In NRC's definition, it is designed 'to prevent seepage water from directly dripping onto the waste package outer surface.'"

The innards of Yucca Mountain aren't actually a dry place. There's more water moving through the site than the Energy Department first imagined, and drip shields are the fudge that's supposed to make everything OK, deflecting drips of water that otherwise would corrode and degrade the waste containment vessels. Degraded containment vessels, obviously, mean uncontained radioactive waste, free to seep into the surrounding environment.

Projected water movements around shielded waste containment vessels. Image: Department of Energy

As Gilinsky explains, drip shields aren't scheduled to be installed in Yucca Mountain for at least 100 years, presumably to keep the project's up-front costs lower and, thus, more palatable to the legislators responsible for funding the whole thing. The catch is that installing the shields in 100 years, when the site is scheduled to be permanently sealed, may not even be physically possible. Humans won't be able to do the installation because of the high levels of radiation, leaving super-specialized robots to do the job. Those robots don't currently exist.

Yucca Mountain in 100 years will be a sketchy environment, full of collapsed tunnels, dust, and unknowns. A new automated railroad system will have to be installed to get materials to the site. "Is it reasonable to believe that after 100 years, with the nuclear waste in the repository long out of the public mind, that Congress would appropriate enormous sums of money for the Energy Department to go back into the tunnels to install the shields?" Gilinsky asks. "Can we really rely on an agency that hasn't yet cleaned up a nationwide radioactive mess that dates from World War II to keep a promise that it will do something a century into the future?"

Without the drip shields, Yucca Mountain will leak, and if Gilinsky is correct, that may be a foregone conclusion should the project proceed. He calls the whole thing a "shell game" and argues that the NRC is complicit; rather than raise red flags about future drip shield possibilities, it's playing along, imagining that in 100 years the United States will be both politically functional and flush with cash, to say nothing of the needed technological advances.

2016, the US presidential election likely to either affirm or correct the federal government's new balance of power, gets more important with every new perspective, nuclear waste included.

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