On a number of occasions, I have expressed my view that Yucca Mountain is the right answer to the wrong question. What I mean is that I have no question that burying carefully packaged used fuel assemblies would be a “safe” way to store the by-products of nuclear fission, but I believe that it is an absurdly costly way to proceed since our current method of storage is just as safe and is much easier.
Things that are easier to do generally cost less money than those things that require more effort.
It often frustrates me that so many people believe that nuclear power proponents have no answer for how to properly handle waste materials. We have been taking care of our waste without too much difficulty for over 50 years. Our method for handling waste is rather straightforward – we keep it in containers, monitor it, inventory it, and ensure that it stays in the containers and does not enter the environment.
In my mind, that is a far better way to operate than the methods used by our fossil fuel competition. Their deadly waste products enter the environment almost immediately via smokestacks and tailpipes.
When I worked as the general manager for a manufacturer, I learned that one should seek to minimize the number of times that you handle and move your inventory – every move adds cost.
I also learned that industrial shipping rates are determined by size, weight, distance, transportation mode and the complexity of the shipment – security requirements, hazardous materials, and changes in shipping mode all add cost. From a cost of shipping point of view, Yucca Mountain seems like the worst possible place to store potentially useful material – it is a far as possible from as many operating plants as possible, the shipments would be extremely complicated, and the packages designed for the shipments are heavier than any currently operating standard rail car can handle.
There seems to me to be no good reason, other than inertia, to continue to spend money characterizing the suitability of Yucca Mountain. The project should be halted immediately and all of the associated scientists and engineers freed for more useful work. There is plenty of work to go around; the nuclear industry and the regulators are crying for experienced help.
It seems that other people are beginning to think along similar lines. I found an article this weekend in the San Luis Obispo Tribune on line site titled Balance may shift for waste to stay put in which the author, David Whitney, described the growing coalition of people that are leaning toward simply keeping the waste at the site where it was generated with the option of later building some regional storage locations.
That concept makes all kinds of sense. Currently operating nuclear power plants in the US are not likely to shut down any time soon; all of the marginal plants have already been removed from the inventory. Even if Yucca Mountain were to open tomorrow, there would always be a need for some on site storage, and the costs of operating a storage facility do not go up linearly with the amount of material that is being stored. There is a certain baseline cost of security and monitoring that is required whether there is one used fuel assembly to guard or thousands of them.
For those half dozen or so sites in the US where there is a used fuel storage facility at a site where the plant that produced the material has already been shut down, the concept of regional storage can help. The regional storage location could most economically be sited on the grounds of an operating reactor facility or it could be an independent site that could handle the material from several locations.
As time goes on, and the inventory of used fuel increases, there will be increasing motivation for recycling. As a matter of fact, the recent huge increases in the cost of natural uranium indicate that there is a need to take a new look at the economics of recycling. When virgin uranium was cheap the numbers did not support recovering the material that is locked inside used fuel assemblies, but that calculus has to have altered with a four fold increase in the price of recently mined uranium.
Even Barbara Boxer, a California Senator frequently cited for her anti-nuclear views, has recently expressed a positive reaction to the idea of nuclear fuel recycling.
Although a skeptic, Boxer also favors research into reprocessing — something that the environmentalists still oppose.
If a way to safely reprocess nuclear waste could be found, Boxer said, it would help on the waste issue, produce new fuel for reactors and “make me feel more positive about nuclear power” as a pollution-free alternative for lowering greenhouse gas emissions.