America’s Yucca Mountain nuclear disposal –- mega waste?

Suppose you had spent billions of dollars creating materials containing the most concentrated form of energy known to humanity, but weren't sure how to safely use it. And suppose that you already had a safe, low cost method of storing this material. Would you a) wait a few decades to see if scientists can figure out how to extract and use that energy? or, b) spend billions of dollars more to make it inaccessible to humanity for 10,000 years to 300,000 years, until it degraded into inert matter?

The U.S. federal government has chosen option "b" – to dispose of high level radioactive waste from U.S. nuclear power plants and the military.

  • At Yucca Mountain, Nevada, the Department of Energy has spent nearly $7 billion on an eventual 100 miles of tunnels in which to entomb 42,000 tons of high-level nuclear waste from nuclear reactors, and another 4,300 tons of waste from weapons production.

  • Currently, the waste, 90 percent of it spent fuel rods, is stored in concrete-encased steel containers designed to withstand earthquakes, tornadoes and sabotage at the country's 103 nuclear power plants; most of the military waste is at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

  • Although the on-site facilities are not designed to last millennia, "We can store spent nuclear fuel on-site in a very safe, efficient and cost-effective way...." says Steven P. Kraft of the Nuclear Energy Institute.

  • The spent fuel contains uranium, plutonium and other radioactive elements which could potentially be separated – with the plutonium, for instance, used to fuel future power plants or interstellar rockets – or transmuted into safer elements.

    Senator Pete Dominici (Republican-New Mexico) says transmutation could reduce the required storage time to a few hundred years, and wants that option explored. Yucca Mountain will start receiving waste after 2010, if the site is approved next year.

    Source: Brian Hansen, Nuclear Waste, CQ Researcher, June 8, 2001, Congressional Quarterly.

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    FMF\24 July 2001
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