THE VINE MARCH 4, 2009
As The Washington Post reported today, Obama's new budget will likely spell the end of the Energy Department's 20-plus-year effort to build a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. While some congressional supporters of the Yucca mountain repository aren't willing to throw in the towel just yet, Obama has proposed cutting the project's funding to skeletal levels, and with Senate Majority Leader (and Nevada Senator) Harry Reid very much on his side, he'll probably get his way. So the Yucca Mountain project may not be all the way dead, but it's at least most of the way dead, and, barring an intervention by the political equivalent of the "Miracle Max" character in The Princess Bride, it's likely to stay that way.
So what does this mean for the future of nuclear power in the United States? Not much in the short run, says Allison MacFarlane, a George Mason University professor and author of Uncertainty Underground, a book on Yucca Mountain and the long-term storage of high-level nuclear waste. The nation's nuclear power plants, MacFarlane told me, will continue storing their spent fuel rods onsite—first in cooling pools and then in slightly more permanent dry-cask storage containers. The Energy Department is still contractually obligated to remove that waste and store it in some sort of permanent repository eventually, so it's not as if utility companies are worried they'll be left holding the bag.
Still, MacFarlane notes that it will be important to construct a permanent geological repository at some point in the next few decades, especially if nuclear power production expands further as part of the push to curb carbon emissions. What's more, the oft-mentioned option of reprocessing high-level nuclear waste and using it as fuel for fast-breeder reactors won't make building a storage site any easier. Reprocessing may reduce the volume of high-level nuclear waste that needs to be stored, but it won't reduce the amount of heat that the remaining waste actually produces—and that's the main concern in finding a suitably sized repository, since you don't want to keep hot waste too close together.
But if not Yucca, where should the permanent burial site for the nation's nuclear waste go? MacFarlane lists three criteria for any permanent repository site: It should be located in an area that's not tectonically active; it should offer a non-oxidizing environment underground so that the storage vessels won't corrode; and it should be part of a closed hydrological system, so that any water that may get contaminated by the nuclear waste doesn't flow to faraway locations. MacFarlane notes that there are plenty of places in the United States that meet all three requirements. Yucca Mountain, for its part, actually meets only one of the three—being located in a closed hydrological basin. And even if it is situated in a closed basin, there are still people who drink the basin's groundwater. In other words, Yucca was a long way from being an ideal repository site. Perhaps there's not much of a reason to mourn its passing.