Thursday, August 12, 2004

Nuclear Waste
Yesterday I ran across this press release from the Kerry campaign, concerning storage of nuclear waste at the designated federal waste site at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. It certainly raises some very serious concerns about this location and about the storage of nuclear waste, in general. However, there are some logical questions that we should be asking about some of these objections, such as:

- Will it be possible to find any storage site so remote that no population is ever at risk, should the storage eventually leak? The fact that Yucca Mountain is within the government's nuclear weapon test site suggests to me that it is probably about as unpopulated as one could find anywhere these days. The alternative would probably be so remote that it would draw criticism for the damage that new infrastructure would do to pristine ecosystems.

- Is it possible to locate any site that is truly seismically inert? A little knowledge of plate tectonics and the geology of the continent suggests that could be a very high hurdle. Instead, we should be asking whether any of the six faults identified near the Yucca site has a history of generating earthquakes large enough to threaten the proposed containment systems.

- Can any disposal method avoid road or rail transportation of nuclear waste and radioactive material from the 100+ currently operating and decomissioned nuclear plants around the country, and from other industrial sources of radioactive waste? Whether the waste goes to Nevada or to the moon it has to travel there somehow. This criticism is not really specific to the Yucca Mountain project, but rather reflects an aspect of any long-term solution to nuclear waste that must be scrutinized carefully.

At the end of the day, it could be that Yucca Mountain isn't the right spot to bury the accumulated waste of sixty years of commercial nuclear power and nuclear weapons production. And with the current threat of terrorism, maybe we need to sharpen our pencils a bit more on how we'd move waste from where it was generated to where it will be buried. But I have to admit to a large degree of skepticism about a laundry list of more-or-less relevant concerns about a proposed waste site in a critical "swing state", released during a political campaign.

We still need to be able to store or otherwise neutralize nuclear waste with a high level of security and integrity for a minimum of several thousand years, based on the half-lives of its most dangerous components. That's no mean undertaking, and the choice of how and where to do this should be made with great care and deliberation. But is it realistic to think that, after at least two decades of working on this problem, we are ever going to find a disposal option that does not meet with opposition from some local community and/or group of well-intentioned experts? With all due respect to the citizens and voters of Nevada, if not there, then where?

We also need to keep firmly in mind that every day we generate additional tons of waste, and that in most cases the present storage location for that waste is a much poorer choice from both a security and integrity perspective than any long-term storage site we could contemplate. Is this a classic case of the perfect getting in the way of the good?

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