Yucca Mountain is a desolate place that resembles a set from “Lost in Space.” Pictures show that there is nothing green there as far as the camera lens can see. It is 50-60 miles from the nearest human settlement. The volcanic tuff that forms the mountain is extremely stable and dry. In the opinion of a large majority of nuclear scientists and engineers, it is an almost perfect location for America’s first permanent storage site for spent nuclear fuel.
Many Nevada politicians and most recognized groups in the antinuclear industry disagree. They are working very hard to persuade the President or a sufficient number of Congressmen that the Yucca Mountain project should be stopped. They want to tell the nuclear industry to wipe off the blackboard and start their problem solving from scratch. The nuclear industry is strongly resisting that notion and working at least as hard to convince federal leaders to keep pushing forward on the project even if Nevada says no. They think that they are almost at their desired destination, a solution to “The Nuclear Waste Problem.”
This issue has to be making political fundraisers almost salivate; they love a situation with well-funded, diametrically opposed camps. They can milk both sides for contributions as long as the issue is in play. A long running disagreement like Yucca Mountain keeps the money rolling in.
I almost cannot believe it, but on this issue I am more in agreement with the Union of Concerned Scientists than with the Nuclear Energy Institute. Yucca Mountain should halted immediately, ideally with the checkbook cut off as soon as humanly possible. It is a terrible waste of money that could be better used in almost any other way.
The problem is that scientists and engineers associated with “the nuclear waste issue” have been working very hard for the past couple of decades in a desperate attempt to answer the wrong question. No matter how hard they try, they cannot understand why so many people will not accept their answer.
Like any good group of technically trained people, nuclear technologists are experts at solving problems once the problem is clearly stated with initial conditions and assumptions. During the years of formal school and professional training that they endure to obtain the licenses allowing them to practice their profession, they answer thousands of difficult questions.
Unfortunately, they develop the habit of allowing their teachers and bosses to compose the question. In the case of nuclear waste, the problem statement and setting of initial conditions was obviously done by a committee, with the rather predictable result of producing a complex, essentially unanswerable question. Imagine the following as a test question.
“Where can America dispose of spent nuclear fuel with a reasonable confidence level that the public will be protected from any health effects from exposure to the material? In producing your answer, please use the following assumptions and initial conditions.
- The byproducts of nuclear fission are so dangerous that they cannot be used as raw material.
- The federal government is the only institution that can be trusted with the responsibility of owning nuclear fuel byproducts and properly disposing of them.
- Future generations will not be able to read signs or warning labels; the waste must be so isolated that they will not stumble upon it by accident.
- Human organizations will cease to exist; the storage scheme cannot require any maintenance.
- No level of radiation exposure is safe for humans. All possible means must be employed to keep doses from the slightly used nuclear fuel to the minimum possible level. The maximum allowable exposure is less than ten percent of the dose that humans receive from natural sources.
- It is worth spending billions of current dollars to prevent any possible hazard to future generations. They must not be burdened with any responsibility for protecting themselves. Ignore the time value of money and do not conduct any cost-benefit analysis that compare the money spent to dispose of nuclear waste to any other use for that money in terms of human suffering avoided.”
Given those conditions, I suppose that Yucca Mountain makes a certain amount of sense. However, I think that the question and most of the assumptions are just plain stupid. It is no wonder that the answer is dissatisfying.
Unlike most of my colleagues in the nuclear industry, I was trained as a literature major. My exams came with open-ended questions that I was free to restate. I have both government job experience and owned my own entrepreneurial company, so I understand the concept of free enterprise. Here is the question that should be answered with regard to what many people call “nuclear waste”.
“The byproducts of nuclear fission are hazardous if not carefully controlled. Develop a scheme to minimize the risk to people, both those that work in the industry and the general public. In producing your answer, consider the following assumptions.
- Nuclear fuel is a carefully manufactured product that uses valuable raw material. Only a tiny fraction of the material is consumed in the fission reaction. Allow for the maximum possible recycling of the leftovers.
- Nuclear fuel byproducts are legitimate industrial raw materials that should be treated like other similar materials. Private enterprise is often best equipped to determine the highest and best uses of such materials.
- There is a safe level of radiation exposure. It can be determined based on the results of already existing studies of large populations of people exposed to various levels of radiation over a long period of time. That level is hundreds of times greater than that assumed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission under the Linear, No Threshold model that is currently official policy.
- Cost is part of the grading criteria. Resources devoted to handling nuclear fission byproducts cannot be used for other pressing needs. Stated another way, the more cost effective your solution, the more money you can make.
- Procedural protection can sometimes substitute for physical barriers; do not assume that people are both ignorant and not trainable.
- Money has a temporal value. Costs that can be deferred may eventually be costs that can be avoided or reduced.
- Human progress will continue. Future generations will have more knowledge than we do because they will be able to build on what we know and add their own contributions.
I plan to describe my answer to the above question in a future article. However, Adams Atomic Engines, Inc. is currently working on a business plan based on the solution, so I have a fiduciary responsibility to limit the number of people who know our plans. At the appropriate time, I’ll unveil the answer. In the meantime, feel free to work on the solution yourself. We would welcome the competition, there is a rather large potential enterprise here that cannot possibly be handled by a single company.