"A bill for an act introducing a new mathematical truth and offered as a contribution to education to be used only by the State of Indiana free of cost by paying any royalties whatever on the same…And be it remembered that these noted problems had been long since given up by scientific bodies as unsolvable mysteries and above man's ability to comprehend." Luckily, the bill failed in the Senate, and never became law. A science/legal quagmire was avoided.
Yucca Mountain, the purported “solution to the nuclear waste problem” has been subjected to similar actions to define nature arbitrarily, but has not succeeded in repelling them. It now faces laws requiring answers to unanswerable questions with little connection to reality. Let me explain.
The term “nuclear waste” is a misnomer. The material in question has several components: fissile nuclear fuel awaiting recycle; fertile uranium that can be converted to fuel in “breeder reactors”; billions of dollars worth of fission products, including “rare earths,” that will be recovered; and a small amount of residual material with no further use. The residual waste will remain within the ceramic fuel structure or be melted into a glass. It cannot be harmful unless it’s removed from its sealed container and eaten. The residual waste can be safely stored in a typical warehouse structure. Maybe we should put up some OSHA warning posters: DO NOT EAT THE GLASS!
Let’s look at the “nuclear waste problem” – not as defined by lawyers or computer modelers, but by its effects on people and the environment. What the problem? Anti-nuclear activist, Sheldon Novick (“The Careless Atom”), wrote that nuclear waste is no more dangerous than many other industrial wastes we handle routinely – and that’s if we let it loose, which we don’t.
Over the past half century, has “nuclear waste” ever had any deleterious effects on people or the environment? The answer is simply NO. When removed from the reactor, the used fuel is placed for several years in “swimming pools,” until 99+% of the radioactivity is decayed away. Then it is stored in robust stainless containers on the plant sites, and many utilities invite visitors to touch the containers, measure the radiation, and satisfy themselves that they are harmless. They are of no interest to terrorists.
The scientific issue is simple and straightforward. But implementing it has become a nightmare. To make the problem go away, decades ago, plant owners calculated that the ultimate safety solution, the Yucca Mountain concept, could be paid for through a minimal surtax on the sale of electricity, and they “solved the waste problem” that way.
But it didn’t end there. Contradictory court rulings, state laws, and declarations by the President and by the National Academy of Sciences became entangled. “Defining the requirements for Yucca Mountain” became a lucrative game and attracted lots of players. But in fact, after a few hundred years, the radioactivity becomes comparable to some harmless, natural materials. “But let’s be conservative. Call it 1000 years…make it 10,000” And somewhere between the Academies and the courts, it got to be a million. Will the cure for cancer still be a problem a million years from now? Will the human race even exist then? Will the YM site be under water? Or in an active volcano field? Where will the leakage paths to the water-table be? No mortal can answer such questions.
We have a choice. Lawyers and politicians could take years, trying to restore YM to its former place. But if they succeed, we will have converted a non-problem into an unworkable situation. We must not go that way. People made this situation; people can unmake it. Any law or rule can be amended. President Obama correctly stated that used fuel can stay where it is for decades more, without posing any significant hazard. Whatever his motive for doing so, Obama’s action presents us with a logical occasion to re-define the issue in light of current realities, and proceed to solve it sensibly
If we accept mercury into our homes in fragile glass fluorescent light-bulbs, and we use various metal poisons in solar panels, both of which maintain full toxicity forever, why should radioactive materials that get less and less toxic each day be fearful for a million years?
There is no call to reduce nuclear safety. The law and commonsense both require that all realistic safety questions associated with radioactive material be fully explored and dealt with. But the current Yucca Mountain specifications do not facilitate that process.
Theodore Rockwell - July 6, 2010
Member, National Academy of Engineering