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Fear and Loathing in the Nuclear Crypt

nuclear crypt

Amid the postwar optimism of the 1950s, starry-eyed scientists envisioned a Utopia engineered by the civilized atom, with reactor-powered jetliners, potato farms solarized by artificial suns and electricity too cheap to meter: Indeed it was all fun and games until they had to take out the trash.

By Christopher Weir

The nation's tarnished embrace of nuclear energy has finally come full circle. With the first generation of too-expensive-to-compete civilian reactors in its death throes without any progeny in sight, the conundrums associated with permanent disposal of radioactive waste have crashed the front lines of nuclear debate. And now that Congress has targeted Nevada's Yucca Mountain, located 80 miles northwest of Las Vegas, as the lone potential destination for spent reactor fuel and military high-level radioactive waste, a geotechnical Mad Tea Party is generating riddles, confusion and accusations that threaten to blow the nation's radwaste policy to pieces.

As a broad coalition fights tooth and nail to halt the Yucca Mountain project, mobilized Nevada officials remain at the opposition's helm, captained by a governor who charges the federal government with "scientific, technical and regulatory manipulation." The Department of Energy--keeper of the nuclear flame--counters that the site is still being evaluated, and that an ultimate decision on Yucca Mountain will be based on sound determinations. Hanging in the balance are fiscal, environmental and health implications of broad concern.

With a final decision on a Yucca Mountain underground repository still several years away, stockpiles of intensely radioactive spent reactor fuel will continue to mount at nuclear plants across the United States, where they are "temporarily" stored in water pools and, in a few cases, dry-storage casks. For decades, utilities produced spent fuel without a disposal answer in sight, quite comfortable that it was Uncle Sam's responsibility. Now they're filing lawsuits against the federal government and raising hell as the mounting trash threatens to complicate--even shut down--their nuclear operations.

But whether it is being orphaned at power plants, transported interstate or socketed into a mountain, the waste, in the words of one observer, "must not get into the hands of ignorant people or desperadoes. No acts of God can be permitted."

In the battle over the fate of our nation's high-level radwaste, the ignorant and the desperadoes are simply those who stand opposite you on the enemy lines. And as for acts of God, the geologic clairvoyance sought at Yucca Mountain invokes a question that has always troubled the atomic age: Has the cultivation of nuclear energy pried open a Pandora's box whose contents exceed the outer limits of scientific knowledge?

Death Mountain

Yucca Mountain is coveted as a repository due to a variety of attributes, including its low water table, dry climate, geologic composition, isolation and alleged seismic stability, all of which would eliminate or mitigate potential radioactive releases. Steel canisters and associated engineering factors, as well as the surrounding pyroclastic rock itself, would act as long-term barriers between radwaste and the outside environment. The whole process promises to cost at least $35 billion.

At the core of the Department of Energy's vast endeavor at Yucca Mountain is the Exploratory Studies Facility, which has been excavated for about three of its planned five miles. Here, scientists are analyzing the geology, hydrology and geochemistry of the mountain's interior to determine the site's suitability. If the site is approved, an arterial network of tunnels would form a nuclear mausoleum, with waste canisters inserted into the rock.

The period of time being assessed--10,000 years, the duration that federal regulations require high-level radwaste to be isolated from environmental contact--is so formidable as to raise concerns about future mining or other development activities (in DOE legalese, "the inadvertent effects of future human activities") that might alter a site universally recognized in our era as a literal hellhole.

Ten thousand years is so far in the future, that the standard skull-and-crossbones logo may be obsolete, so new icons are being developed to communicate the nature and lethality of our repository cargo to future millennia. The material survivability of these icons, as well as of the monuments that would bear them, is another matter. The Sphinx of Giza, for example, is hanging on at the tender age of 4,500.

As stipulated by the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, 70,000 metric tons of high-level radwaste are potentially destined for the bowels of Yucca Mountain. A majority of that waste would be composed of spent fuel from civilian reactors. These reactors produce electricity via turbines that are powered by steam, generated by the heat released by nuclear fission.

When enriched uranium reactor fuel sustains a chain reaction, a cauldron of highly radioactive fission products is produced. Some of these byproducts--such as strontium 90 and cesium 137--remain "hot" for decades. Also, some of the uranium is converted into long-lived, transuranic elements, including plutonium-239, which is hazardous for tens of thousands of years. According to Nevada's statistics, a repository at Yucca Mountain would hold a fission product inventory the equivalent of that produced by 2.3 million detonations of Trinity-sized (18.3 kiloton) atomic bombs.

Obviously, high-level radwaste demands an almost supernatural caution.

This generates some awesome questions surrounding Yucca Mountain's long-term integrity: What effect would glaciation in California have on the repository? Could this corner of the desert mutate into an oasis after 5,000 years? To answer such questions, everything from on site volcanic potentials to the effects of localized earthquakes to futuristic meteorology is being studied. And it's the conclusions drawn from these studies that are of increasingly volatile dispute.

Nevada--for 40 years home to the world's premier nuclear weapons testing range--has drawn a line in the desert sand, concerned about not only the health and image issues associated with being the nation's radioactive dumping ground, but also the manner in which the DOE is conducting its site characterization process. Robert Loux, executive director of the Nevada Nuclear Waste Project Office, the epicenter of official state opposition to the Yucca Mountain Project, says, "The accusation from Nevada is that the Department of Energy is collecting only the data that suggest the site is good, while, by and large, rejecting data that suggest otherwise."

DOE spokesperson Samantha Richardson rejects this perception. "Congress set this program up so something like that could not happen," she says, citing Congressional, federal and scientific oversight that provides independent analyses of DOE conclusions. Ultimately, she adds, construction and operation licenses would be the province not of the DOE, but the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. "There is a system of checks and balances that has been created."

But is a Yucca Mountain repository inevitable? Because Congress has dictated that the federal government investigate one method of disposal at one particular site, an overriding concern is that the project's vast organizational momentum--fueled by politics, industry interests and the billions of dollars already invested--is spinning out of control.

The Beast's Burden

According to a DOE project summary, "Scientists believe that groundwater is the most likely way radioactive materials could be released from a repository." Noting the Yucca Mountain region's slight rainfall standard, deep water table and "relatively little water" in the unsaturated zone above that table, the summary concludes, "These factors significantly limit the chance of water reaching and corroding waste containers and carrying radioactive material away from a repository."

These criteria would, it's agreed, probably qualify Yucca Mountain as compatible with the DOE's high-level waste siting guidelines: "A site shall be disqualified if the pre-waste emplacement groundwater travel time from the disturbed zone to accessible environment is expected to be less than 1,000 years along any pathway of likely and significant radionuclide travel." As recently as December, DOE scientists were on the record as stating that "new" water found along faults and fractures at Yucca Mountain was more than 100,000 years old.

But a preliminary report recently released by Los Alamos National Laboratory scientists concludes that elevated levels of chlorine-36 found in moisture along faults and fractures at the repository level suggest that "at least a small proportion of the water at these locations is less than 50 years old."

Chlorine-36 is a signature radioisotope generated by cosmic radiation, as well as by atmospheric nuclear weapons testing, which began in 1945. The report clearly challenges some of the basic assumptions--and even conclusions--previously popular at Yucca Mountain. And it conjures a troubling question: How close do these findings come to the disqualifying factor regarding groundwater travel time?

Says Loux, "When confronted with this data ... the DOE's response is that they agree that the [data] probably do violate the regulations, but that they're going to change the regulations to eliminate those particular criteria."

DOE scientist Abraham Van Luik says that any talk of violations is premature. "This is a significant issue," he says, "and we're realigning some of our resources to focus on it." He acknowledges that the groundwater flow rate standard is, indeed, on the verge of elimination, but not for the reason Loux posits. "This was in the works over a year and a half ago," he says. "We have been talking about it internally for a long time." The change, he says, is tied to a congressionally ordered revision of an Environmental Protection Agency code that is the "mother of all regulations" in this case.

Van Luik adds that the new health-based standard--which would favor the big picture of radiation control over technicalities like fixed groundwater travel time--will not make the DOE's job easier. "What we're being handed now," he says, "is a much more difficult package to show compliance with."

Retorts Loux, "They're working without EPA standards--they don't know what the target is. They're confident asserting that they believe the site is going to work out, that it ... will be found suitable. Based on what? They don't know what the standard is going to be."

Loux also maintains that the situation brokers a broader implication, one that illustrates the high-stakes political and industry matrix within which the DOE operates: "He [Daniel Dreyfus, the DOE's civilian radwaste director] tells me that the nuclear industry guys jumped him big time and told him not to issue this [chlorine-36] press release, that it imparts something other than what he has been saying previously, i.e.: that it's a suitable site. ... The industry has no real interest in an overall concept of waste management. Their interest is purely parochial: Get this shit out of our reactor sites."

Road Hazard

If and when a Yucca Mountain repository is constructed, high-level radwaste will hit the interstates and railways with unprecedented frequency. At which point the proverbial dung will hit the national fan. Take, for example, the outcry in the wake of an announcement early this month that the DOE plans to ship 20 tons of foreign spent fuel rods through the Concord Naval Weapons Station to storage sites in Idaho and South Carolina. The idea, local politicians are screaming, is "bad, dangerous and unjustified."

Governor Pete Wilson calls the plan "incomprehensible." So if that's incomprehensible to a Republican governor, then the tens of thousands of metric tons destined for the repository promise a bipartisan freak show when they hit the nation's byways.

"The DOE and the nuclear industry," Loux says, "know that as soon as they start identifying routes and talking about [shipping] containers, the rest of the nation is going to go apeshit."

Says Richardson, "There's a proven track record in the scientific community, and the community that deals with nuclear products on the whole, that it can be done safely." She notes that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Department of Transportation and individual state agencies all have input and responsibility in radwaste transportation matters.

Asks Loux: "What track record? In a campaign to ship to Yucca Mountain, we would have more waste moved in any one year than the entire history of waste movement on the nation's thoroughfares to date."

Only eight of the nation's 109 operating reactors are located in the West. So when Congress targeted Yucca Mountain from among other proposed sites by amending the Nuclear Waste Policy Act in 1987 (a move that was derided by opponents as the "Screw Nevada Bill"), it ensured that the burdens of radwaste transport will be disproportionately allocated to the West. It also ensured that the waste will travel practically the longest overall distances possible, most of it by rail.

According to Linda Desell, a DOE physical scientist, the Department of Transportation does not place spent fuel in its own category, but rather classifies and regulates it in line with other hazardous wastes. There are no regulations stipulating that spent fuel be shipped on "dedicated" trains, meaning that it can be loaded onto mixed-cargo transports and hauled at speeds established for hazardous freight.

Two recent rail accidents illustrate the extremes to which rail shipments can be subjected. In early February, a freight train derailed on a steep downgrade in Southern California's Cajon Pass, exploding and igniting a diesel-and-chemical inferno that burned for hours. And in March, a derailment in Wisconsin resulted in a propane-fed blaze that took weeks to extinguish.

The exotically durable casks that would be counted on to contain the waste in the event of an accident are still in the design phase. However, prototypes and current shipping casks provide a general standard. "It takes an incredible amount of force to even dent one of these casks," Desell says.

Nevertheless, Nuclear Regulatory Commission licensing guidelines do not require full-scale testing of radwaste shipping casks. Scale-model tests and computer modeling are considered proven methods for achieving design standards and regulatory compliance.

"They refuse to test to destruction, i.e.: 'Let's test one to see what it takes to make one fail,' " Loux says. "And we're concerned that the NRC regulations on these tests don't reflect real-life accident conditions."

Desell counters that the required tests are sufficiently rigorous, and that the DOE isn't refusing to do anything, but rather waiting for the casks to be produced before deciding if, and how, they will be tested beyond NRC requirements, which include a 30-foot drop and a 30-minute heat test at 1,475 degrees Fahrenheit.

Once-popular crash test footage--used to illustrate cask durability--has been systematically misused by some in the nuclear industry, a development that raises questions about the industry's attitude toward public discourse on transportation issues. The footage shows casks being subjected to extreme conditions, including fire and full impact from a high-speed train. Packaged as a promotional video, the footage has been used by trade groups and utilities--including Pacific Gas and Electric--to illustrate the safety of radwaste transportation.

The video, however, neglects to mention that the tests were conducted only to verify computer modeling configurations. Neither does it mention that a cask failed during at least one of the tests.

"We have not used those films for the last eight or nine years precisely because we felt that other folks were using them in a way that might not be as upfront about the modeling purpose of the tests," Desell says, adding, "DOE has always clarified that it was a modeling-only test."

Barred Science

'Virtually anything that happens on the Yucca Mountain program," wrote the DOE's Dreyfus in a recent Science article, "gets amplified well beyond rationality. It lends itself to sensationalism." It also lends itself to mistrust. From the defunct Atomic Energy Commission's bedding down with industry to misuse of the cask test films to multibillion-dollar contaminations at DOE weapons production sites ($50 billion's worth at its Hanford site alone), the nuclear clergy has done its part to stoke the same public fears it dismisses as ignorant or, in the words of one DOE official, "divorced from reality."

But the reality is that a major train accident involving significant radwaste release would ignite a multibillion-dollar nightmare, one with immense health and psychological consequences. Spent fuel is so volatile that, even after ten years in a storage pool, it remains thermally hot and exceedingly empoisoned. As with reactors, the fear with radwaste transport is an explosion or fire with subsequent breach of containment. Vapors, smoke and gas are, in this scenario, the couriers of widespread radioactive havoc.

According to the DOE's computer modeling and risk analyses, this can't happen. Neither could Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, the Challenger disaster and a number of legendary scientific surprises. As for Yucca Mountain, the concerns are more long-term, but similarly sticky.

The repository itself would be a hothouse, with interior temperatures hovering around the boiling point of water for years. What effect this will ultimately have on the rock--and fractured water pathways--is unknown.

Regardless, it's acknowledged that the waste canisters must degrade. NRC canister regulations require "substantial" containment for 300 to 1,000 years.

"Nobody really knows what that means yet," Loux says.

It does mean that radwaste will eventually be loosed within the mountain's interior, where it's hoped zeolite minerals would help filter radioactive particles in the event of water flow. This hope is based, however, on the assumption that water presence will be minimal. But if the radwaste zone becomes groundwater-saturated after several thousand years--as many have suggested is possible--the implications for widespread contamination are enormous.

Loose radwaste also engenders other disturbing possibilities, one of which can be found in a provocative theory developed by two physicists at the DOE's Los Alamos National Laboratory. The theory maintains that fissile (fission-capable) elements within the weapons-grade radwaste could eventually concentrate within a geologic repository, reach critical mass and stoke a nuclear reaction that could, in a worst-case scenario, spew rock and radioactivity toward the heavens. Since generating headlines last year, the theory has been either thoroughly discredited or perilously ignored, depending on who's being asked.

"They [the Los Alamos duo] wanted to push for processing this stuff," says one source who declines to be named, "and one way to push for it, to get the money for it, is to scare people. ... The whole issue is an embarrassment to the scientific community."

Charles Bowman, who developed the theory with Los Alamos associate Francesco Venneri, calmly repudiates any notion that his science was colored by some other agenda, but adds, "We're competing technologies. The repository people look at our efforts and point out the difficulties. ... And as part of that, we recognized a problem with underground storage."

Enlightened Option

The competing technology of which Bowman speaks is the "accelerator," which promises someday to transmute long-lived radwaste isotopes into much less hazardous byproducts. By hurling protons that, in turn, fire neutrons like scattershot, the accelerator induces fission in elements that otherwise can't sustain a moderated chain reaction.

"We believe," Bowman says, "that our technology can be demonstrated as effective before repository storage would actually begin. Then what's happening? Fifty years from now, the repository people will be trying to assure the public that the waste has been stored safely. And we can say, 'It's gone.' " At the very least, long-lived radwaste plutonium--the merest particle can be fatal when ingested or inhaled--wouldn't be a 100,000-year wild card.

Bowman adds that destruction of the fissile portion of radwastes would produce energy like that from reactors. "We'd convert that energy into electric power, and sell the power to pay the costs. We believe we can build systems where the energy sold will pay almost all the costs for doing that."

Whether or not the accelerator technology proves to be a competitive--or enlightened--option, it does underscore the primary snag in the nation's high-level radioactive waste policy: one site, one method, no alternative.

The road to Yucca Mountain is fatefully paved with big-money politics and industry machinations, which is perhaps to be expected of any public works project of such stature. But a 10-year, multibillion-dollar evaluative process without any designated alternatives is begging for a sort of monolithic optimism. For example, last December--with the exploratory tunnel less than halfway toward its projected goal--the DOE's Dreyfus told a Senate panel that there is a "very, very high probability" that a repository can be built at Yucca Mountain.

There remain some in the environmental community who'd rather daydream that the waste didn't exist, to whom any solution is a bad one. But head-in-the-sand condemnations of the Yucca Mountain project are the type that would probably haunt any method of disposal. Geologic repositories are the blueprint for nuclear nations across the world, and could ultimately prove to be the best solution. Without exploring other options, however, how can such a determination be made?

It remains to be seen if the sum of Yucca Mountain's problems add up to a fatally flawed program, or if such broad scientific disagreements equal no science at all. But the pressure's on, heads are hot and the money's burning. And if the nation's radwaste policy fails its mission, the loathsome price will be paid by someone, someday. Of that, there's no doubt.


My Way or the Highway

Getting there will be half the fun

Santa Cruz may be a nuclear-free zone, but California is not. To date, no routes for spent fuel transport have been officially designated. But Nevada's estimates based on DOE information yield a general picture for California: Forty-four truck casks, primarily down Interstate 5, exiting via Interstate 15. And 1,242 rail casks along established Southern Pacific and Union Pacific routes throughout the state. Points of departure are operating and defunct reactors in San Luis Obispo, Humboldt Bay, Sacramento and Southern California, as well as out-of-state sites whose wastes will travel through the state.


Gravy Train

Utilities got a 50-year free ride on ratepayers' backs

When civilian nuclear energy was being developed during the 1950s and 1960s, high-level radwaste was perceived by both regulators and utilities as a nagging question for which future technology would provide an answer. Meanwhile, the federal government encouraged utilities to take the atomic plunge by promising to subsidize both ends of the nuclear fuel cycle: enrichment or reprocessing for reactor fuel, and management of radwastes (for economic and political reasons, the reprocessing of civilian reactor spent fuel never materialized). This management--and its current incarnation at Yucca Mountain--is paid for by ratepayers across the nation via subsidies attached to nuclear-electricity generation.

"Utilities really had a very good deal," Robert Loux says. "They have been, in essence, on the gravy train for 40 or 50 years."

Pacific Gas and Electric customers have already contributed more than $150 million--at a current pace of $15 million per year--to the search for a repository site and subsequent developments in Nevada. In addition, despite the hyper-inflated price tag of its $5.3 billion Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant (pre-construction estimates hovered below $500 million), the California Public Utilities Commission has guaranteed the company's shareholders full recovery on their investment, plus profits.

According to Robert Kinosian, a senior CPUC analyst, "If Diablo Canyon was replaced with new resources at current market prices, rates would be 15 percent lower than they currently are."

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From the May 30-June 5, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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