With over 20% of United States power production being of a nuclear nature, and all of this nuclear production generating high-level nuclear waste, the US has already accumulated large quantities of volatile nuclear waste and will only have more in the future (Schneider, 2009). Currently, there are few options for dealing with nuclear waste. Although research and development of storage/remediation methods is ongoing, current waste that has accumulated is stored in sealed casks mostly on-site at the plants at which they are generated. This scattering of radioactive waste throughout the country at ground level is seen as a liability for natural disasters and terrorist actions. One proposed solution for the management of nuclear waste is through underground sequestration in a major Department of Energy run facility. This would collect all of the nation’s accrued nuclear wastes in one safe location underground to allow the waste to decay over time in a controlled environment isolated from environmental factors that could undermine their containment.
The sequestration of nuclear waste underground demands an arid environment that has a very deep water table, as to prevent groundwater contamination and seepage. The proposed Yucca Mountain, Nevada site fit this bill perfectly with what has been described as “several hundred meter-thick unsaturated zones common to the arid and semiarid Southwest U.SA.” (Winograd, 2008).
First investigated in 1978, Yucca Mountain, Nevada has been studied for the last 31 years as a possible nuclear waste repository for the US nuclear power generation program (Warren, 2005). Throughout the years of its proposal and investigation, the issue of whether or not to locate a nuclear waste facility of such magnitude at a site in our own Nevada desert has been hotly debated and contested. If it were to come to fruition, The Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository would be the first long-term storage facility in the US for high-level nuclear waste.
Beginning with the Waste Policy Act of 1982, three different sites in the US were identified as possible sites to locate and process the long-term storage of high-level nuclear waste. Each was required to be studied in depth for feasibility, hydrology, geochemistry, and paleoclimatology (Winograd, 2008). From these studies, the US Department of Energy was delegated the task of designing and implementing such a facility. Based on the information presented to the secretary of energy, one specific site would be chosen with the approval of the secretary (Warren, 2005). In 1987, the Waste Policy Act was amended to specify Yucca Mountain, Nevada as the chosen site based on its advantageous attributes for such a facility. Additionally, in a move that many would call unwise, the amendment nullified the previous requirement of the act for all three sites to be studied in depth. This left Yucca Mountain with a virtually clear path as it was the only site studied in great detail, and was determined to be feasible (Winograd, 2008).
In spring 2002, President George W. Bush officially endorsed the Yucca Mountain site as the US’s answer for a mounting nuclear waste problem; an answer that he said would last 10,000 years (Forest, 2002). Pre-construction, the facility stands with an “Exploratory Studies Facility.” This facility exists a hundred stories underground, where the proposed tunnels housing waste would be located. 70,000 tons of waste, to be specific, mostly uranium from power production and plutonium from weapons operations (Forest, 2002). This waste is to be stored in casks composed of stainless steel and “a synthetic blend of corrosion-resistant materials called Alloy 22” (Forest, 2002).
Naturally, the proposal of such a site has faced many logistical challenges. Some of these included the possibility of groundwater penetration, earthquake vulnerability, and the sheer degree of time that the facility would need to be operational to allow the waste to decay. Many have claimed that the EPA’s “compliance standard” that required the containers to effectively sequester the waste for 10,000 years are far too short, with real requirements being in the hundreds of thousands. In fact, in a ruling by the US Court of Appeals, a panel of judges determined that the EPA “disregarded recommendations from a 1995 National Academy of Sciences study that the standard be hundreds of thousands of years, or longer” (Slattery, 2004). This is supported by a 1998 study conducted by the Institute of Energy and Environmental research, concluding that because of pockets of moisture that were present in the Yucca Mountain, which had come from beneath, the site had flooded in the past (Bloomfield, 2005). If it had flooded in the past, it could very well flood in the future, possibly compromising the containment systems separating the noxious nuclear wastes from the outside environment.
The most influential obstacle that the proposed Yucca Mountain site has faced, however, has been funding. Given the recent economic downturn and massive government deficits, the US Federal Government simply cannot afford to fund such a facility in its given situation. With troops deployed in the Middle East, an already severely swelled annual budget, failing healthcare systems, and rising unemployment of great national concern, the government is forced to devote its limited resources elsewhere in the present state of the nation.
Additionally, it really is not clear that sequestration and long-term storage of nuclear waste is the most cost-effective option. The original thinking has been that because nuclear waste decays over time, delaying reprocessing of these wastes as long as we can, would be most cost effective. This stems from the admittedly logical thinking that, given that the waste slowly decays over time, the longer we wait to process it the less radioactive it will be when we actually do process it, making it cheaper to process in the long run. When reviewing scientific studies on the matter, however, it becomes clear that this idea simply is not true. Because high-level nuclear waste takes so long to decay, reprocessing in the future will not be discounted enough to cover the cost of storage for such a long period of time. In fact, the overall cost of long-term storage and then reprocessing is actually 2.5% higher than immediate reprocessing (Schneider, 2009).Continued on Next Page »
Bloomfield, B. P., & Vurdubakis, T. (n.d.). The secret of Yucca Mountain: Reflections on an object in extremis. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 23, 735-756.
Forest, D. (2002, Summer). Burial ground: Fear and loathing at Yucca Mountain. OnEarth, 24(2), 20.
Geiselman, B. (2005, August). Analysts call for recycling of spent nuclear fuel rods. Waste News, 11(9).
Kriz, M. (2008, June). Obama on energy and the environment. National Journal, 40(24), 2.
Kriz, M. (2009). Death knell for Yucca Mountain? The Environmental Forum, 26(4), 8.
Schneider, E. A., Deinert, M. R., & Cady, K. B. (n.d.). Cost analysis of the US spent nuclear fuel reprocessing facility. Energy Economics, 31(5), 627-634.
Slattery, R. (2004, August 16). Court says Yucca Mountain design unsafe. High Country News, 36(15), 6.
Warren, L. M. (2005). Case Notes - Regulatory challenge: Implications for radioactive waste management in the United States. Environmental Law Review, 130-149.
Winograd, I. J., & Roseboom, E. H., Jr. (2008, June 13). Yucca Mountain Revisited. Science, 320, 1426-1427.
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Nuclear Waste Management Essay
Nuclear Waste management
Nuclear energy harnesses the energy released during the splitting or fusing of atomic nuclei. This heat energy is most often used to convert water to steam, turning turbines, and generating electricity.
However, nuclear energy also has many disadvantages. An event that demonstrated this was the terrible incident at Chernobyl'. Here on April 26, 1986, one of the reactors of a nuclear power plant went out of control and caused the world's worst known reactor disaster to date. An experiment that was not properly supervised was conducted with the water-cooling system turned off. This led to the uncontrolled reaction, which in turn caused a steam explosion. The reactor's protective covering was blown off, and approximately 100 million curies of radionuclides were released into the atmosphere. Some of the radiation spread across northern Europe and into Great Britain. Soviet statements indicated that 31 people died because of the accident, but the number of radiation-caused deaths is still unknown.
The same deadly radiation that was present in this explosion is also present in spent fuels. This presents special problems in the handling, storage, and disposal of the depleted uranium. When nuclear fuel is first loaded into a reactor, 238U and 235U are present. When in the reactor, the 235U is gradually depleted and gives rise to fission products, generally, cesium (137Cs) and strontium (90Sr). These waste materials are very unstable and have to undergo radioactive disintegration before they can be transformed into stable isotopes. Each radioactive isotope in this waste material decays at its characteristic rate. A half-life can be less than a second or can be thousands of years long. The isotopes also emit characteristic radiation: it can be electromagnetic (X-ray or gamma radiation) or it can consist of particles (alpha, beta, or neutron radiation).
Exposure to large doses of ionizing radiation causes characteristic patterns of injury. Doses are measured in rads (1 rad is equal to an amount of radiation that releases 100 ergs of energy per gram of matter). Doses of more than 4000 rads severely damage the human vascular system, causing cerebral edema (excess fluid), which leads to extreme shock and neurological disturbances causing death within 48 hours. Whole-body doses of 1000 to 4000 rads cause less severe vascular damage, but they can lead to a loss of fluids and electrolytes into the intercellular spaces and the gastrointestinal tract...
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