GeoChemist Asks: Who Needs Yucca Mt. Anyway?

What's the use of going through all the legal and political disputes, detours and protests -- not to mention expense -- to create an underground repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, when much of the spent fuel waste from nuclear power plants no longer fits the definition of high level waste, an expert geochemist is asking.

Yucca Mountain designDr. James Conca, in an article published in Forbes, sees the Yucca Mt. solution to the nation's spent fuel storage problem as, essentially, moot. “The problem this time is that most of our high-level nuclear waste is no longer high level,” Conca explains. “And most scientists agree we shouldn't dispose of spent nuclear fuel until we reuse it in our new reactors that are designed to burn it,” he said.

Similar to car engines that re-burn exhaust that still carries volatile fuel atoms that can be for better gas mileage while burning up pollutants in the process, Conca is asking why the country would bury spent fuel that could be re-used in modern reactors, thereby stealing new energy from the same fuel and coming away with a less volatile radioactivity in the spent fuel in the process. In addition, if we buried useful fuel, we would just need to mine more uranium out of the ground for the new reactors.

As a geochemist, Conca doesn't like the Yucca Mountain option, anyway. He doesn't argue that it is not safe, but argues that it would be a needlessly expensive project. “Besides, the highly-fractured, variably-saturated, dual-porosity Yucca Mt. volcanic tuff with highly oxidizing groundwater was the wrong rock to begin with, causing the cost to skyrocket and the technical hurdles to keep mounting,” he said.

He argues that there are four types of radioactive waste. Transuranic waste (TRU) from the nuclear weapons program has a place to go – the Waste Isolation Pilot Program's underground repository near Carlsbad, N.M. Similarly, low-level radioactive waste (LLW) has six storage sites around the country. That takes care of the third most radioactive waste – transuranic – and the fourth most (or least) radioactive waste.

That leaves spent nuclear fuel, the hottest level of radioactive waste and high-level waste (HLW), which is the second hottest.

While it may have made some sense to place the two hottest waste materials underground at Yucca Mountain forty years ago, when the proposal was first developed, it no longer does, says Conca.

Everything has changed since 1970. We removed most of the hot stuff from the HLW tanks (137Cs/90Sr), and the rest has radioactively-decayed to TRU and is no longer high-level,” Conca argues.

“All those high-level tanks up at Hanford are now filled with TRU waste, and many other tanks there, particularly, the leakers, were already filled with TRU,” he writes.

Some of the TRU waste in storage in New Mexico is, in fact, hotter than some of the HLW stored at Hanford that has been in limbo for decades. During those same decades, and due to time and chemistry, the need for a separate repository for spent nuclear fuel and HLW fades, Conca says.

Alternative facts aside, we really cannot afford to do dumb things that cost hundreds of billions of dollars. Treating over 50 million gallons of nuclear waste as high-level, when it isn’t, is really dumb,” he wrote.

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