Matt Wald of the New York Times recently reviewed a new book on America’s nuclear waste storage saga titled Too Hot to Touch: The Problem of High-Level Nuclear Waste.
Aside: Sadly, Matt’s post was one of the last posts ever published on Green, which just announced its demise due to budget constraints. It’s a crying shame; Green provided excellent coverage and interactive discussions of issues that are extremely important for us now and for our children’s future. End Aside.
Wald uses an interesting analogy to describe the challenge of containing used nuclear fuel:
The spread of nuclear waste is a little bit like the flow of hot wax down the side of a candle on the dinner table; the question is not so much whether it will drip as whether it will stop before damaging the tablecloth.
I like analogies and like playing around with those proposed by others. I think Wald is closer than he realizes to helping people understand how silly the nuclear waste discussion can be. Anyone who has ever let candles drip to the point of collapse onto a table should know that congealing wax has little chance of permanently harming most table cloths. It has almost zero chance of harming the table beneath the table cloths or the people who enjoyed the meal around the candle lit table.
By the time the wax has actually dripped down the side of the candle and fallen onto the table cloth, it is pretty cool and almost congealed. It pools on the table cloth in a form that can be easily scraped off without any lasting harm to the cloth – unless it happens to be a decorative, purposely fragile lace table cloth. The table beneath the cloth is protected by the material and usually shows no ill effects at all. The wax does not turn into a flowing river and it does not wash into the laps of the diners. In fact, formerly melted wax generally comes to rest within a centimeter or two of the bottom of the candle.
I still find it hard to believe that we have spent so many billions of dollars trying to solve a trivial issue with no risk to human health and are apparently still fifty years from the answer. Used nuclear fuel might be able to get hot enough to damage the carefully engineered containers that we use to store it, but if it does, it is exceedingly unlikely to move any significant distance or to harm any people. The natural reactors at Oklo provide some pretty convincing evidence about how little movement there will be, even in a situation without engineered barriers.
The Yucca Mountain project shared many characteristics of other Big Science wastes of money. I am positive there are a substantial body of people who defend the Yucca Mountain project based on all of the fun geologic research it allowed them to pursue, or interesting numerical models it paid them to create, or reliable paychecks it allowed them to cash while living near Las Vegas and working on the project’s paperwork.
I have no doubt that the regulatory evaluation would have proven that waste storage in Yucca would have met the requirements imposed. That does not stop me from stating that I still think that the requirements were stupid and that the program was designed from the start to answer the wrong question.
Here is one of the responses that I posted on Wald’s blog post.
Matt – you and the authors of the book are spreading misinformation in the following statement:
“The Alleys, however, take a more subtle approach. For the site to be licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, they write, it had to be assured that the repository would fully contain the radioactive material and NOT DELIVER A SIGNIFICANT RADIOACTIVE dose to anybody for “time periods beyond our wildest imagination’’ — even the next million years.”
The standard set by the EPA for the dose rate was just 15 millirem per year. That is an incredibly IN-significant radioactive dose on a planet where the average natural background dose rate is about 300 millirem per year.
There is a great deal of scientific evidence that shows that annual dose rates of less than 10 REM per year (10,000 millirem) have effects that are so low they cannot be measured in the background noise of normal risks of living on earth.
Setting a standard of 15 millirem per year over 1,000,000 year indicates that the scenario was purposely designed to fail. However, the people that stacked the deck against nuclear energy, hoping that the incredibly difficult and illogical standard would successfully constipate the industry ended up being afraid that we just might be able to meet that standard.
They pressured their congress critters and senators to halt the still legally required evaluation process before answering the question.
As is my habit, I suspect that anticompetitive hydrocarbon money is involved.