Nuclear Waste Storage: A Problem We Must Solve


The attached article (Federal Court Revives Yucca Mountain – 18 August 2013), which appeared in a recent issue of the e-journal Energybiz, addresses an important issue – use of Yucca Mountain in Nevada as a long-term radioactive waste repository. In principle the discussed Court decision, subject to further appeal, reopens the entire Yucca Mountain issue.

As mentioned in my earlier blog “Nuclear Power” the U.S. has a long-term radioactive waste storage problem that must be addressed, although temporary storage onsite at nuclear power plants gives us time to try to perhaps develop a different and less problematic storage scheme. This was the approach taken by Energy Secretary Chu in the first Obama Administration, along with the appointment of a Blue Ribbon Commission to explore options. The full Commission report (‘Blue Ribbon Commission On America’s Nuclear Future’), released in January 2012, can be found at htp:// A brief summary of its recommendations is shown below:
“The strategy we recommend in this report has eight key elements:
1. A new, consent-based approach to siting future nuclear waste management facilities.
2. A new organization dedicated solely to implementing the waste management program and empowered with the
authority and resources to succeed.
3. Access to the funds nuclear utility ratepayers are providing for the purpose of nuclear waste management.
4. Prompt efforts to develop one or more geologic disposal facilities.
5. Prompt efforts to develop one or more consolidated storage facilities.
6. Prompt efforts to prepare for the eventual large-scale transport of spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste to
consolidated storage and disposal facilities when such facilities become available.
7. Support for continued U.S. innovation in nuclear energy technology and for workforce development.
8. Active U.S. leadership in international efforts to address safety, waste management, non-proliferation, and
security concerns.”

These decisions by Secretary Chu and subsequently by the chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission effectively stopped progress on Yucca development. They have been highly controversial, attacked by many in the nuclear power industry and other nuclear power supporters. Utilities that have long paid into a federal fund for permanent waste storage are also litigating to recover the funds if Yucca does not go forward. A significant political factor is the unrelenting and powerful opposition to Yucca by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and other Nevada politicians and citizens.

Many ideas have been put forward for long-term radioactive waste storage since the dawn of the nuclear age. These include deep geological storage (e.g., Yucca), disposal in the deep ocean, disposal at deep ocean rifts, burn-up of long half-life transuranic wastes in breeder reactors, and even disposal of wastes in the sun after placement in earth orbit by rockets (with obvious risk factors!). The theoretical attractiveness of the latter scheme is that it removes the waste from the earth and it takes relatively little energy to go from earth orbit to collision with the sun (although the energy to reach earth orbit is not insignificant).

The long-term waste problem is part of what Alvin Weinberg called nuclear power’s Faustian Bargain – accepting the benefits of nuclear power along with its long-term and problematic legacies. Most of the accumulated wastes today are from civilian nuclear power but development of nuclear weapons has also contributed a significant share.

So how does one solve this problem, which has to be solved and has implications for an untold number of future generations? Several countries with nuclear power plants are actively researching this issue, and deep geological storage seems to be the favorite so far. There are no easy answers, given the time scales involved (e.g., plutonium, a by-product of fission, has a radioactive half-life of more than 22,000 years), but an answer is needed soon because of the growing amounts of waste and their vulnerability, in above-surface storage, to natural disasters or terrorist attacks. Fukishima is a clear example of the former.

What I believe is needed is a speed-up of U.S. government examination of this issue and increased and informed public discussion of the options. Increased international cooperation on the issue is also needed. Nuclear power issues are not just technocratic issues, as some in the nuclear power industry have long argued. The broader public needs to be involved in decisions about long-term storage if they are to receive needed public support and if civilian nuclear power is to have a shot at a long-term future. And not finding a solution is not an option – the waste problem exists and that genie, along with the ability to produce nuclear weapons, is out of the bottle.

Jerry Pell

The facts of the matter are that, for better or for worse, Yucca was the outcome of decades of studies and billions of American taxpayer dollars. Regardless of whether Yucca could safely store nuclear waste for a million years – a million years!?! Somebody’s nuts! – it remains our only practical “near term” solution. I put “near term” in quotation marks because, even if fully green-lighted and expedited, many years would elapse before the first shipment is stored. Starting all over again, as proposed by Chu, merely means postponing the waste issue for decades more. Do you really think we’ll find a better repository than Yucca, and that it will be located in a welcoming state? Our civilian (and other) waste storage sites are overflowing and constitute a grave security hazard. I fervently support going full speed w/Yucca NOW!
– Jerry Pell, PhD, CCM; U.S. Department of Energy (retired)