Thursday, July 5, 2012

Yucca. Pinnacle of Waste?

Yucca Mountain, Nevada
photo: Wikipedia

UPDATE: 7-Aug-2012:
Court Weighs an Order on Nuclear Waste Site in Nevada (NY Times)

According to the federal appeals court in Washington DC, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission must make a determination on the fitness of Yucca Mountain as a nuclear waste storage facility unless Congress rules by December 14th that the NRC should abandon the evaluation. Despite President Obama's 2010 stop work order on the site, Congress failed to suspend the commission's work, while at the same time failing to fund further study by the commission.

Original story:
On 5-July-2012, The New York Times ran the following editorial: "Remember Yucca Mountain?" The article describes the intended use for the underground facility at Yucca Mountain, Nevada; the dire need to dispose of spent fuel rods from nuclear power plants; and goes on to say: "It would be easier to monitor and inspect the rods and cheaper to guard them in a central location."

Respectfully, I disagree with that assessment.

When calamity, either human-induced or nature-induced, visits a designated central storage site, you can be sure human errors and technical failures will pop up like mushrooms, just as they did at Fukushima, Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fermi I.

Fermi I, topic of "We Almost Lost Detroit"
photo: Beyond Nuclear

Fermi I, the first (and only) breeder reactor to operate commercially in the US -- the great promise of a reactor that runs practically forever on teaspoons of fuel -- failed and suffered a partial meltdown shortly after it began operation. Fermi II, operated off and on since 1988 on the same site (near Monroe, Michigan), houses tons of spent fuel rods in an unshielded pool five stories above the reactor containment vessel. The contractor who installed a crane for moving the rods from the pool executed numerous welds improperly. Packed in to twice design capacity (with NRC approval), the rods were impossible to move due to a gimped crane. Those welds have been fixed, we are assured, and the rods can be moved. But now, the plant awaits seismic analysis before proceeding with a "dry" run test of the crane -- designers of the plant did not consider the possibility of a temblor. They are not unheard of in the Midwest. One destroyed New Madrid, Missouri about a century ago.

New Madrid, Missouri, December 16, 1811
photo: Smithsonian Magazine

The nuclear power industry has been a bungled, subsidy dependent, clown show since its inception with no tangible benefit for the society that naively supported it. We are stuck with overpriced, unreliable (shutdowns of months or years are common) sources of electricity. Now the plan is to move spent fuel at Fermi II and other plants to shielded "dry casks" and store it on site. That, according to many, is the safest plan: keep it on site in comparatively small quantities. Moving it presents even greater danger. Pack it in low volume, stable, hardened containers, build walls around it, and pay guards to watch it you hope you can trust. If utilities transport the spent fuel to a central location, state and federal forces insist on militarizing roads, rails, and rivers -- demanding ID from travelers, detaining anyone "suspicious" -- to protect against terrorists. Utilities can not guarantee the fuel will not fall off a truck or train or barge due to mechanical failure (ill-maintained bridge collapse?). If that happens, we'll have a disaster in an unforeseen, possibly well-populated, location with no evacuation plan (no one could design a credible evacuation plan for every inch of the route between say upstate New York and Yucca Mountain). Once the disaster occurs, of course, crews will have thousands of years to contemplate clean up -- that's how long some of the isotopes in spent fuel rods hang around in toxic concentration. Keep the spent fuel where it is, and create no more. Efficiency improvements and distributed renewables are cheaper and more reliable.