U.S. Nuclear Dump Site
In Serious Trouble
By Jennifer Maddox
Scripps Howard News Service
YUCCA MOUNTAIN, Nev. ( -- Yucca Mountain isn't much of a mountain. It's more like a long, dusty berm at the end of a long, straight road that cuts across the vast and barren Nevada Test Site.
There, at the southwestern edge of this rocky desert spot, where 925 nuclear bombs have been detonated since 1951, the government wants to store the nation's nuclear waste.
At best, the huge mound of rock that makes up Yucca Mountain will be ready to house that waste by 2010 and will stay open for at least 40 more years.
At worst, the site will be closed; it's $2.1 billion tunnel abandoned. Fifteen hundred people working for 17 government contractors, four national labs and the U.S. Geologic Survey will have nothing to show for more than two decades of research and construction.
At stake is the future of 107 operating nuclear reactors in 34 states, which collectively provide more than 20 percent of the nation's electricity in the 48 continental states. Since 1982, rate payers in those states have paid more than $14 billion into a fund to build a central nuclear waste dump, which was supposed to be ready by Jan. 31. They will continue to pay indefinitely until the issue is resolved.
The atom-splitting fission process that creates nuclear power leaves behind highly radioactive, ceramic-like black pellets the size of chalk pieces. They are being stored in cylindrical rods in storage pools at each reactor, but space is running out.
To that end, 46 utilities and state public service commissions are suing the Department of Energy over its failure to collect the waste by January, as required under a 1982 law.
Scientists with the department are assembling a report for Congress this fall that will determine whether Yucca Mountain is the right place to store the waste. They must prove that the rock 800 feet below the mountain's surface can safely isolate at least 70,000 metric tons of radioactivity for thousands of years. That amount would fill the area of a football field 24 to 30 feet deep.
The project might never come to fruition because of the political and licensing problems it faces. And there is no Plan B. A law passed in 1987 directed the Department of Energy to evaluate Yucca Mountain exclusively.
"At this point, the law prohibits DOE from looking at any other sites," said Frank Randall, external affairs officer for the federal Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board in Arlington, Va. "Their hands are tied. They can't look anywhere else."
The prospect of burying massive quantities of radioactivity -- not to mention transporting it to Nevada across the nation's roads and rails -- has fueled debate between Congress, local and state governments, and public interest groups across the country.
The opposition movement has grown to the point where even federal regulators are unsure of the project's future.
"Three or four years ago, it looked like pretty much things would go right through, scientifically and technologically, and everything would work out just fine," Randall said. "I'm not so sure anymore. I think public confidence and trust are going to have a much larger impact than we thought."
No Protests At Site
There isn't much evidence of outright protest at the Mercury exit off Highway 95, 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas. One wouldn't even know the radioactive history behind this place based on the entrance sign that reads "Nevada Test Site: An Environmental Research Park."
The only sound is the wind that whips across the desert flats. The area is populated only by joshua trees and creosote bushes, desert mice and rattle snakes.
The low-lying mountains in this area are monuments to a prehistoric volcano that erupted more than 12 million years ago. The rock of Yucca Mountain is dense and hard because it was formed by a blanket of thick volcanic ash from that eruption, geologist Tim Sullivan says.
That's why it was supposed to be the perfect place to bury nuclear waste. Stable, impermeable rock. A thousand feet below the mountain crest, yet still at least 800 feet above an unusually deep water table. An "unsaturated zone," scientists say. Far removed from anything living.
This hypothesis, however, is slowly being refuted through continued experiments on the mountain's geology. What started as impermeable is turning out to be permeable. What started as stable is turning out to be unstable.
The result: water might corrode the nuclear waste storage containers. Earthquakes might break them. In either case, radioactive particles would wash down into an aquifer 50 miles long and 20 to 30 miles wide. It serves farming communities in western Nevada and eastern California.
Shocking Discovery
When scientists tested the rock excavated from a five-mile tunnel drilled into the mountain, they found a strain of chlorine 36, a chemical byproduct from nuclear bomb testing that dated back to the 1960s. The only way it could have found its way down through the rock is by water. In less than 50 years, this element has washed down through rock that was supposed to block its passage for more than 1,000 years.
"There are some fast paths" for the water, geologist Sullivan said. Faster paths than current Environmental Protection Agency standards allow.
"I think they have a major problem on their hands. I don't think they can license the site under current regulations," said Robert Loux, director of the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects, the appointed state overseer of the Yucca Mountain project.
In response, the EPA is looking to change the standards, to the chagrin of many who oppose the project.
"They will now change the guidelines to make sure the site will pass," said Mary Olson, a nuclear waste specialist with the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, an anti-nuclear group in Washington. "It's like moving around the goalpost in a football game so the ball will go through."
The EPA is changing the standards because of the technology of the containers being designed to hold the waste, government officials say. They don't need to rely 100 percent on geology to contain the radioactivity, they say.
"The board is of the opinion that (safety) can still be achieved," said Randall of the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board.
Earthquake Danger Far Worse
Water is not the only concern at Yucca Mountain. Recent tests show the mountain, which lies between two fault lines, is 10 times more prone to an earthquake than previously thought.
A recent article in Science magazine cited calculations that the earth's crust over Yucca Mountain is moving about 1 millimeter per year. That's a tiny amount, but it becomes larger considering previous estimates were about one-tenth of a millimeter.
Besides the mountain, the region is marked by fault lines every two to three kilometers, which is considered a higher density than elsewhere in that part of the state, Sullivan said.
"We don't regard earthquakes as a significant impact on the overall performance of the system," Sullivan said, citing global examples where underground mines have survived earthquakes that otherwise devastated surface structures above.
"We would expect the same to be true at Yucca Mountain," Sullivan said.
Opponents are not so sure.
"There's a serious strain problem on the crust that's pulling Yucca Mountain apart," Loux said.
Science Seeking Solution
The environmental flaws of Yucca Mountain can be overcome through modern technology, Department of Energy officials say. Scientists are designing double-layered containers made of metal alloys that are highly resistant to corrosion and strong enough to withstand surrounding ground movement. The design should isolate the radioactive waste for at least 10,000 years and up to 100,000 years, officials say.
But the specific metals haven't been chosen. A prototype hasn't been built. And the endurance estimates of the containers are extrapolated from experiments that have lasted only six months to a year.
Bob Fish, a specialist in this area with subcontractor Booz Allen Hamilton, says he is "relatively confident" of his estimates. Continued testing will make him more confident, he said.
But no one can second-guess Mother Nature, geologist Sullivan said.
"I'm certainly confident about the metal, but less certain about what the conditions will be over a long period of time," he said.
Which begs the questions, are there any conditions anywhere that can be judged safe? And is radioactivity necessarily worse than damaging "green house" gases produced by other forms of energy?
"We're not trying to demonstrate that Yucca Mountain is perfect. We're trying to demonstrate that Yucca Mountain is suitable," said Leigh Ann Marshall, spokeswoman for the Nuclear Energy Institute in Washington. "Everyone's looking for this perfect answer, but every energy source has its limitations."

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