Coming sooner to a cave near you?
On March 26, 1999, the first load of nuclear waste for disposal arrived at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad, New Mexico. WIPP is the first underground nuclear waste storage facility in the world and as you can see from this CNN story, neither the arrival nor the transportation of the waste was greeted warmly by concerned citizens.
While the Energy Department (The agency in charge of nuclear waste disposal.) probably expected some negative reaction to WIPP's opening, DOE may face an even stronger reaction as Nevada residents learn about H.R. 45 - The Nuclear Waste Act of 1999.
H.R. 45 amends the original Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA) of 1982 which specified Yucca Mountain, Nevada as the one and only site to be considered for permanent storage of America's high-level nuclear waste. The NWPA of 1982 also required a lengthy site analysis, process of the Yucca Mountain area before allowing the transportation to or storage of any waste at the facility before the year 2010. [DOE Project Timeline from NWPA of 1982] H.R. 45, if approved, moves the project into the fast lane by requiring that the Yucca Mountain site "commence acceptance of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste no later than June 30, 2003."
|NWPA of 1982 - no waste
storage before 2010
NWPA of 1999 - waste storage no later than 2003
Yucca - Hotter Than WIPP
The now-active WIPP facility at Carlsbad will store only "transuranic" nuclear waste comprised of waste left from the research and production of nuclear weapons. Transuranic waste contains mainly plutonium and is considered less toxic than the "high-level" waste of spent nuclear fuel to be stored at Yucca Mountain.
|"It is a fact that after fifty years of careful handling of plutonium by humans in the nuclear industry and the nation's weapons programs, there have been no fatalities due to plutonium exposure." - WIPP Fact Sheet, DOE|
Underground nuclear waste storage is designed to guarantee that humans and waste do not come together until time has adequately degraded the radiation levels of the waste. In the case of the waste stored at WIPP that "time" is 10,000 years. Yucca Mountain, storage is -- forever -- and that's a long, long time.
|"After about 300,000 years, people living about 20 kilometers (12 miles) south of Yucca Mountain might receive additional radiation doses that are comparable to present-day doses from natural background radiation." - Viability Assessment of a Repository at Yucca Mountain, DOE.|
Transporting Nuclear Waste
Perhaps even more than long-term storage, transportation of nuclear waste is a source of public concern and protest. The highway and rail routes proposed to carry waste to Yucca Mountain span the US and go through or near several major population centers. [Map of Proposed Routes - Source, State of Nevada]
The Department of Energy has established strict standards for the packaging and transportation of nuclear waste and can boast a perfect safety record... "Over the last 25 years, approximately 2,500 shipments of spent nuclear fuel have been transported safely over America's highways, waterways, and railroads. During this time, an exemplary safety record has been established with no fatalities, injuries, or environmental damage caused by the radioactive nature of the cargo." - Transportation of Spent Nuclear Fuel, Dept. of Energy
Truck-Mounted Spent Fuel Shipping Cask - DOE
Final routes for transporting nuclear waste will not be determined until the storage facilities are ready and actual shipments begin. However, Department of Transportation regulations "...generally limit shipments to either the interstate highway systems, a state-designated alternative route, or both." - Dept of Energy.
Unfortunately, the interstate highway system connects major populations centers, thus making the interaction of people with waste inevitable.
From a Nevadan's Viewpoint
Mining Co.'s Guide to Las Vegas, Robert Romano, has observed both the political and technological developments leading to nuclear waste storage in Nevada for years. In "Nuke 'em?! - The problem," Romano gazes on Yucca Mountain from a unique viewpoint - that of a next-door neighbor.
Granted - one of the biggest problems faced by any level of government is waste disposal. From household trash to spent nuclear fuel rods, everybody wants you to pick it up, but nobody wants you to put it down.
But - our best technological minds have spent over thirty years and trillions of tax dollars to determine that the very best way to deal with deadly toxic nuclear waste is to... (drum roll)... bury it. In a time when "recycle" and "reclaim" have become standard operating procedures for governments, businesses, and individuals, - bury it?
Please - come on best-minds. Before it's too late, think harder.
Los Alamos National Laboratories
Sandia National Laboratories
WIPP Project Homepage
Yucca Mountain Site Homepage
Yucca Mountain Fact Sheet - DOE
Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management