The Veteran’s Memorial Highway veers through seemingly endless Nevada desert before it intersects State Route 373, just a short way from the Jackass Aeropark. At this crossroads 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas sits a hucksterish Western-themed gas station (and saloon and brothel and restaurant and mini-mart) called Nevada Joe’s. An asphalt oasis among jagged rocks and Joshua trees, it sits alone in the unincorporated Amargosa Valley. “Open 24 hrs.,” it declares. A bronco-busting cowboy, presumably Nevada Joe, looms above the parking lot.
It may not look like much, but Nevada Joe’s has a claim to fame. It is, by a long shot, the last stop on the highway before the proposed nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain. That’s no secret. A professional, 50-foot-high billboard announces the “Yucca Mountain Information Center” with an arrow pointing to Nevada Joe’s. Beneath that reads “last service before,” in the same all-caps Helvetica, and then “Area 51” in a yellow, X-Files knock-off font. To the left, an alien – gray, bug-eyed, oddly placid – reminds readers this is “Alien Territory.”
So when I walked inside Nevada Joe’s to ask for information about Yucca – specifically, whether the face-high chain link fence surrounding it could be scaled without a trespasser incurring a bullet wound from some unseen security guard's gun – I was surprised when three men sitting at a table next to the checkout counter looked at me as though I was the alien, freshly descended from outer space.
Sticky TOC engaged! Do not remove this!
Wasteland: the movie
Photo credit: lawatha
A man with a deeply tanned face scrunched under a scraggly Fu-Manchu lifted an eyebrow in my direction. "What mountain?" he asked.
"Yucca Mountain," I told him. "It’s on the billboard outside."
One of his friends came to life, grinning, nudging the guy with the Fu-Manchu. "Yeah, we know what you’re talkin’ about," he said to me. "Just givin’ you some shit."
"Might as well not know about it," Fu-Manchu said. He reached into his pocket to get a can of Skoal. He snapped the lid, opened it and shoved some dip behind his bottom lip.
"And as far as hopping the fence," he said, "rest assured you will be shot."
He said something about heavy security surrounding the site.
"Why the hell would anyone want to do that anyway?" he asked. "Don’t you read the papers?"
Yucca, the rocky desert range on the horizon, was chosen 25 years ago as the nation’s first and only nuclear waste repository. Thus began a conflict among politicians, locals, anti-nuclear activists, government officials, and the nuclear industry. Thanks to decades of political power plays, safety debates, and scientific disagreement, Yucca has never opened. Meanwhile, nuclear power provides twenty percent of America’s electricity, with the resulting waste — about 70,000 tons of it — accumulating at 75 sites nationwide, including near major metro areas such as New York City, New Orleans, and Chicago.
It’s clear now that Yucca may be dead. After funding cuts and two years of contentious deliberations in Washington, D.C., the federal government is, for the first time since 1987, deliberating new ways to resolve our national nuclear waste stalemate. Its conclusion could mean new life for nuclear power in the U.S. Or leave it moribund.
I said some of this to the trio at Nevada Joe’s.
Fu-Manchu responded first.
"That’s all fine and good," he said, spitting into a Styrofoam cup. "All I know is this. There are plenty of things I want in this world. And a pile of radioactive garbage in my back yard ain’t one of ‘em."
A new deal
In the years following World War II, the nuclear fission inside the atomic bomb was turned to a new use: creating electricity. Another kind of Cold War competition began, with the U.S.A and U.S.S.R racing toward the first electricity-generating nuclear reactor for large numbers of civilians.
The Soviets won, with a reactor that went online outside Moscow in 1954. But the U.S.A used a different tactic. It passed the Atomic Energy Act, which opened the military expertise developed during the war to the private sector. For the first time, civilians could conceivably develop nuclear electricity on their own.
At the time, the problem of nuclear waste didn’t get much thought. The Act didn’t assign federal government responsibility for its disposal. But it did offer that whoever dealt with the waste would need to "protect the public health and safety and the environment."
Scientists had just begun to understand the dangers of radiation. The aftermaths of Hiroshima and Nagasaki offered a glimpse of the hazards, and a Nobel Prize-winning 1946 study connected x-ray radiation to human mutations. When fallout from a hydrogen bomb test killed a Japanese fisherman and badly injured his crew in 1954, it raised serious questions for atomic scientists. What effects did radiation have on the human body? Was it killing people? How? Was there such a thing as a "safe" dose?
What effects did radiation have on the human body? Was it killing people? How? Was there such a thing as a ‘safe’ dose?
In response, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) created a panel to study the "Biological Effects of Atomic Radiation." Funded independently of the government, the study sought consensus about radiation’s possible dangers. Instead, it outlined serious disagreement. Many geneticists argued that radiation caused mutation and in high doses could kill humans. Many atomic scientists, conversely, saw it as a mostly harmless, naturally occurring phenomenon. The study concluded optimistically that radiation, though harmful, could be managed. Nuclear power — and nuclear weapons testing — pushed forward.
In 1957, as the first commercial nuclear reactor in the U.S. opened, another NAS study targeted the high-level nuclear waste issue for the first time. High-level waste — the "spent fuel" left over after nuclear reactors process uranium for electricity — should be moved away from nuclear reactors as soon as possible and stored deep in the ground, preferably embedded into salt. New Mexico, the study mentioned, could provide storage in the caverns of its potassium-rich salt mines.
Moving a nation’s accumulated nuclear waste to one spot — or even a few centralized spots — would be expensive. And it would involve complicated cooperation among nuclear companies that typically operated independently. So for two decades, almost nothing happened. Without serious political pressure, nothing would happen. But few people knew or cared enough to force legislative action.
The radioactive remains of the Three Mile Island disaster, seen in this ominous government issued video, are stored at the Idaho National Laboratory in Idaho Falls, just west of the Teton National Forest. These remains were destined for Yucca Mountain. Now, their future is uncertain.
The Three Mile Island (TMI) meltdown, in March 1979, changed that. A reactor at the facility (about 20 miles southeast of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania) grew so hot it started melting. No one died, but some 40,000 gallons of radioactive wastewater ended up in the Susquehanna River, for reasons poorly explained by officials. Media worldwide questioned the handling of the accident. And just 12 days earlier, The China Syndrome had opened in theaters. Starring Jane Fonda as a television news reporter who discovered deadly cover-ups at a nuclear power plant, it became a box office hit and received four Academy Award nominations. The public, it seemed, had soured on nuclear power.
That reactor at TMI was shut down (another is licensed to operate until 2014). Cleanup efforts lasted 14 years and cost over $1 billion. The accident brought nuclear power again to the forefront of public consciousness, and in an extremely negative light. With greater awareness of the potential dangers of radiation, pressure mounted on legislators to break the nuclear waste standstill. In 1982, Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA). It officially required the federal government to establish two waste storage sites — essentially sacrifice zones, vacant and expendable territories, one in the west and one in the east. (Most of the country's nuclear reactors are east of the Mississippi River.) The power companies, for their part, agreed to put about $750 million per year into a newly formed Nuclear Waste Fund designed to pay for the site.
Keeping with the NAS’s 1957 suggestions, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) listed possible nuclear waste solutions, many of them in salt deposits. Consulting with scientists and engineers helped narrow the options — safe versus unsafe, practical versus impractical. But Congress’s eventual solution relied less on scientific consensus than on politics. And those politics would set up one of the most contentious legislative battles in U.S. history.
Power to the people
Once you get a few miles outside Carson City or Reno or Las Vegas, it’s easy to see how the federal government could take over this land without many political roadblocks. The Fed owns about 85 percent of Nevada, more than in any other state, and it's mostly barren desert — harsh and unforgiving, without even the picturesque sand dunes of the Sahara. It’s mountainous, rocky earth — hot, parched awfulness in all directions.
It’s easy to forget this while looking up at the Wynn or the Bellagio or Circus Circus from the Las Vegas Strip. But drive north or northwest and for hours you’ll see little other than giant meandering tumbleweeds, the occasional trailer park, or prison-erected road signs warning drivers against picking up hitchhikers.
"The people in Washington [D.C.] did not understand the deep-seated distrust of government nuclear projects..."
The desolation looks timeless. You can imagine it remaining uninhabited forever — barren a million years in the past and a million years into the future.
And if you were the U.S. government, you might imagine a perfect nuclear bomb testing site. Situated mere miles from Death Valley, the Nevada National Security Site—known as the test site—stretches over 1,300 square miles of desert. Built in 1941, it saw nearly 1,000 nuclear detonations, both underground and atmospheric, over more than 40 years. The site entrance, at a military base called Mercury, lies about 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
The test site became an economic engine for the town of Pahrump, a bedroom community with a population of about 36,000. The residents have a Libertarian reputation; the New York Times profiled them as an integral piece of Ron Paul’s voter base during this year’s Republican primaries. The article summarized Pahrump as "a place where many people come to be left alone."
But by the late-seventies, the nearby detonations began to unnerve locals. And for good reason. In 1979, the New England Journal of Medicine released a study finding an unusually large number of leukemia deaths "occurred in children up to 14 years of age living in Utah between 1959 and 1967." Those kids were Downwinders — residents of Nevada and Utah affected by decades of wind-blown nuclear fallout. Many Downwinders, declaring themselves victims of a federal cover-up about the dangers of nuclear testing, filed lawsuits.
In an interview earlier this year, Bob Halstead, executive director of Nevada’s Agency for Nuclear Projects, which oversees Yucca, put it this way: "The people in Washington [D.C.] did not understand the deep-seated distrust of government nuclear projects that was the result of the … 30 plus years of nuclear weapons testing at the Nevada Test Site."
Distrust made Nevadans believe the worst about the political process, Halstead said. So, in the cities far from Yucca, the common wisdom had Nevada being repeatedly screwed by the federal government. In the 1980s, the highly politicized process of establishing a national nuclear waste repository did little to change that view.
As the 1986 elections approached, Republicans controlled the U.S. Senate. Seats in New Hampshire, North Carolina, Wisconsin, and Georgia were endangered. To ensure none of those Republican Senators needed to defend an unpopular nuclear waste repository to their constituents, states east of the Mississippi River were eliminated from consideration. The scientific process to narrow down options for two sites was scrapped, too. At at estimated $1 billion each, Congress considered two sites prohibitively expensive. If Congress had known how much would eventually be spent studying just one site, it might’ve reconsidered. Regardless, the decision was made: a single site, located in Washington, Texas, or Nevada.
Washington had obvious appeal, since federal land there already stored waste from nuclear weapons production. Texas also had federal land, in the middle of nowhere and inside a huge salt deposit. And Nevada’s Yucca Mountain was in the middle of the desert and already part of the test site.
But the Majority Leader of the U.S. House of Representatives was from Washington and the Speaker of the House was a Texan. Nevada’s four representatives, in contrast, had little power. One member of that delegation was Harry Reid, who’d be elected to the Senate later that year. Another was James Bilbray, who later told Governing Magazine he recognized the writing on the wall:
"They were reassuring me all along that no matter how it looked, everything would come out in the wash," he recalls. But he knew something was up when a conference committee member pulled him aside before the committee session began.
"Listen," the man murmured. "I hope you understand what is going on here. There are three sites under review — Texas, Nevada and Washington. And the Speaker [of the House, Jim Wright] is a Texan and the majority leader [Tom Foley] is a Washingtonian." He noted the weak status of the small Nevada delegation. Three of the four were in their first terms. Furthermore, none served on the conference committee.
"I hope you understand," he concluded. "It is not going to Washington. And it is not going to Texas."
The resulting legislation eliminated sites in Washington and Texas, allowing no fallback option if Yucca proved unsuitable. Residents dubbed it the "Screw Nevada" bill, just another example of political maneuvering trumping what could have been a fair process. It didn’t even have the veneer of scientific objectivity. At the time, Washington’s Representative, Al Swift, put it bluntly: "I am participating in a nonscientific process — sticking it to Nevada."
It certainly looked that way to Nevadans. But the truth was more complex.
Bullfrog County, Population: 0
Many Nevadans resented the national politics that chose Yucca as a nuclear waste site. But with the decision made, state legislators stood more than happy to accept federal money — in whatever way they could. The federal government offered payments to the county storing nuclear waste, not the state. That county was Nye — home to Pahrump and Nevada Joe’s and not much else. The state wanted that money, and had a plan to get it.
In 1989, Nevada’s state legislature created Bullfrog County, the only county in the U.S. with a population of zero. It contained Yucca and nothing else. Its county seat was in Carson City, the state capital, some 350 miles northwest. Bullfrog County served no other purpose than to filter federal dollars into the state’s hands.
The Bullfrog plan was later declared unconstitutional, but it was the first overt public action pitting the state against Nye County. And it was yet another example of how Yucca was manipulated for political gain — and how science played almost no role in any decisions about where to site a nuclear waste dump.
"Bullfrog County was a very big deal," said Dr. Michael Voegele, a former chief scientist at Yucca who now provides engineering consulting services for Nye County. "The state was supposedly against the project but as soon as those [payments] became a reality, there was a rush to take advantage. It was greed, plain and simple."
Voegele is one of many engineers, geologists, and scientists who spent the bulk of their careers working to make Yucca safe. But that word, "safe," means different things to different people. And there have always been other considerations.
Voegele belongs to a Nye County contingent that has wanted nuclear waste in its backyards from the beginning. To hear him explain it — and to read about it in the local paper — the safety fears have always been overblown. Voegele called nuclear waste "an emotional topic" — perhaps something of an understatement. And Nye County’s Commission Chairman Gary Hollis told the Pahrump Valley Times last April: "There’s no one more concerned about the health, safety and welfare of the community than us. I assure you, I would not put my grandkids in danger if I didn’t believe that Yucca Mountain was safe."
It’s significant that the county closest to Yucca — the county housing Yucca — is also the county least concerned about its safety. What’s more, Voegele and the others in Nye County remind me and anyone else who will listen that legislators in Clark County, home to Las Vegas, haven’t always been so deeply opposed to Yucca. I told him, for example, about Halstead’s comments — that Nevadans had a deep distrust of nuclear projects. I also told him what Halstead and others in Clark County told me: that a nuclear waste repository could hurt Las Vegas tourism.
"That’s bullshit," he said flatly.
"Both points are bullshit?" I asked.
"Yes, both," he said.
Despite four decades of ongoing nuclear testing, he pointed out, plenty of people had no problem moving to Las Vegas by the late 1980s, when Bullfrog and Yucca first made national headlines. Between 1950 and 1980, in fact, the city’s population grew from just under 25,000 to almost 165,000. Between 1980 and 1990 (the test bombings ended in 1992), Las Vegas grew by nearly 100,000 residents. If the test site instilled Nevada’s population with a distrust of nuclear projects, it apparently didn’t go very deep.
What’s more, he said, both Clark County and Nye County drafted legislation as early as 1974 asking the federal government to send high-level nuclear waste into their communities. Clark County’s commissioners nearly begged for it, arguing the work would boost their economy. They also claimed that proximity to the test site instilled its residents not with distrust but with "years of expertise in nuclear material handling."
Did Nevada get screwed by the federal government in 1987? Perhaps. But against simplistic "Screw Nevada" narrative, a strong pro-Yucca contingent existed. Supporters could note that Nevadans seemed apathetic toward nuclear danger in the 1970s; some even claimed the residents had unique experience handling nuclear material. And local, cash-starved governments saw Yucca as a economic boon.
But perhaps most optimistically, the best case for Yucca was the promise of reprocessing.
Read these documents here: PDF
To make or not to make an atom bomb
From the beginning, there have been two schools of thought about storing nuclear waste (and technically three if you consider "don't worry about it" an option).
The first school favored eternal entombment, as the NAS recommended in 1957. Salt has always been a perfect geologic medium for that: it would slowly close in on the waste, crush it, and make it irretrievable.
The second school said nuclear waste wasn’t waste at all, and that it should be stored to allow future access.
The Nye County guys are firmly in the latter school. Former Nevada governor Bob List is a practicing lawyer these days, allied with the Nye County contingent. He told the Pahrump Valley Times, "most of us in Nevada who live closest to [Yucca] really see it as an opportunity. They see it as a creation of a Fort Knox, a valuable commodity being placed in that mountain, a real treasure that someday will come out and be reprocessed and benefit all of America."
How does one group see an eternal problem and another a treasure? The answer is reprocessing. After uranium in a reactor has been bombarded with neutrons for about 18 months, it becomes useless. It becomes "spent fuel." But it still contains uranium, which can be used again to produce electricity in a different kind of nuclear reactor. This cycle is used primarily in France, with China and India exploring options to mimic France's reprocessing program. Reprocessing is similar to recycling plastic or newspaper: old material feeds the production of new stuff. But it’s also controversial.
For one, it’s expensive. A secret Japanese government report (unearthed by the Mainichi Daily News) in 2004 showed that standard, uranium-mined nuclear power was one-fourth to one-third less expensive than the equivalent reprocessing options.
Second, uranium remains abundant, meaning there’s little need for reprocessing. Estimates from nuclear wonks worldwide generally agree that if the world’s needs quadrupled today, uranium wouldn’t run out for another 80 years.
Third, reprocessing doesn’t reduce radioactivity in spent nuclear fuel. It just produces less of it. So reprocessing doesn’t eliminate the need for a nuclear waste dump.
Finally, the mechanics of reprocessing are similar to building an atomic bomb. So there’s fear, perhaps irrational, but understandable, that reprocessing might encourage the production of more nuclear weapons.
"We lost ourselves when we started looking at the project as though it were a department store..."
All these considerations inspired Jimmy Carter, on April 7, 1977, to declare to the world that the U.S. would not reprocess nuclear waste. That seemed to solidify a national policy: with no reason for a less-permanent facility, a deep geologic repository — entombing waste perpetually in salt or whatever — looked like the future.
But that didn’t settle the argument.
Dr. James Conca has followed the commercial nuclear waste issue for decades. Before his current gig as a lead scientist with the RJLee Group in Pasco, Washington, he worked for years as a geologist both at Yucca and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), in Carlsbad, New Mexico.
President Ronald Reagan lifted the reprocessing ban in 1981. Then in the mid-eighties, Conca said, a movement further resisted President Carter’s declaration. Congressmen — no doubt influenced by nuclear scientists and industry representatives — wanted spent fuel available just in case reprocessing became a cheaper, better option. Storage in rock was less permanent than disposal in salt. And Yucca was in rock. So that was that.
But Conca, unlike Voegele, considers that a bad idea. Despite working there for 15 years, he doesn’t think Yucca is right for nuclear waste. And he doesn’t think reprocessing is viable. In fact, he thinks the reprocessing skirmish shows how America’s nuclear waste-disposal debate lost its way. "We lost ourselves when we started looking at the project as though it were a department store where you could have a revolving door and take back what you don’t want," he said.
Yet faith in reprocessing — and, for that matter, faith in other experimental nuclear waste alternatives that might reuse and, if possible, defuse the dangers of nuclear waste — persists. Bill Gates' company, TerraPower, is working on alternatives to the nuclear waste problem. So is at least one firm, Transatomic Power, spawned from the nuclear program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. As Dr. Alan Hanson, Executive Director of the International Nuclear Leadership Education Program at MIT, told me: Nuclear waste "is only a waste if we decide to throw it away."
‘It’s radioactive, stupid!’
By 1992, Yucca was it. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) began the labyrinthine process of licensing the site. And the DOE began to send people and funds out to the Nye County desert. But Nevadans remained wary. And a badly produced ad campaign did little to quell their distrust.
In 1991, nuclear industry groups had a multi-million dollar plan: they would run television and radio ads assuring Nevada residents that storing nuclear waste was no big deal. Ostensibly designed to assuage fears, they were oddly evasive and, rather than refuting safety concerns, belittled them.
In one ad, a female narrator asked, "Why can’t high level nuclear waste be permanently stored in the states that produce it?" The question had occurred to many Nevadans. Their state had zero nuclear reactors in 1991 — and still, to this day, has zero nuclear reactors. So why should it handle waste produced in 31 other states?
In response, the ad showed Dr. David Dobson, identified as a Stanford-trained geologist, sitting at a desk in front of a shelf of heavy-looking books and binders. Central casting’s vision of scientific authority, he wore a white dress shirt and black tie, with huge glasses beneath side-parted dark hair.
"Well, as we’ve discussed before," he said — apropos of nothing, since this was the beginning of the commercial and "we" had not "discussed" anything before — "dry cask storage is a safe interim storage method and many utilities would probably be interested in doing that for the short term." He went on: "But again, leaving [nuclear waste] on the surface where it has to be managed by people and monitored fairly carefully is not what we consider to be a good long term solution. We prefer getting it underground where we can remove it from the human environment as much as possible where we can put it in a safe location."
Which, you’ll notice, doesn’t answer the question. Even if nuclear waste should be stored away from reactors, why put it in Nevada?
Instead of assuaging fears and instilling confidence, the ads brought negative attention to Yucca. They inspired popular parodies by radio DJs such as Johnson and Tofte on KKLZ in Las Vegas.
Ads promoting nuclear waste disposal in Nevada backfired during the early 1990s.
"Why don’t they store nuclear waste where it is generated?" a goofy, fake serious male voice intoned in one of the parody ads.
"Well, because it’s radioactive, stupid! It can hurt people!" a fake geologist, alternately named Dr. Halflife and Dr. Halftruth, yelled in response. "You don’t want that stuff lying around! Box it up, get rid of it!"
"Um, thank you Dr. Halflife," the fake-serious voice said.
"Ok," Dr. Halflife said. "Do you have my check?"
Meanwhile, the Yucca project moved forward. By 1994, a massive tunneling machine dug a five mile exploratory hole into the mountain. Around the same time, the National Research Council released its technical standards for Yucca. They included a time standard: because the probability of a glacier overtaking North America was "highly unlikely but not impossible," licensing would require proof that Yucca could remain stable for 10,000 years. Voegele and Conca consider that an extraordinary request — and one that put engineers and scientists in uncharted territory. They would have to design a repository that would remain stable, sturdy, completely intact and impenetrable for about double the length of recorded human history, a facility that would last twice as long as the Great Pyramids of Egypt.
And yet, the two nuclear isotopes posing the most danger for the longest period of time are Technetium-99 and Iodine-129 — which have half lives of 220,000 years and nearly 16 million years respectively. So if dangerous radiation is the primary concern 10,000 years seems, in some ways, an arbitrarily-chosen length of time.
Technical problems also began to emerge at Yucca. The desert landscape had defused concerns about water erosion, with the initial plans calling for a site more than 2,000 feet underground, beneath the water table. But studies in the 1980s revealed plenty of ground water at that level, and it was boiling hot.
Scientists suggested moving the site up to a thick, apparently drier zone above the water table, about 1,000 feet below ground. But the new level only partially alleviated the water problems. Some groups have found residual rainwater at Yucca, and water means corrosion. If, during the 10,000 years of storage, the metal containers corrode, waste could seep into the fractured rocks, making its way into the water table below. Into the drinking water of not just the eight or so people living within 30 kilometers, but also the couple thousand people living in the small towns of Beatty, Indian Springs and Pahrump.
Forget that Pahrump’s residents don’t seem to care much. The possibility worried DOE enough that it proposed titanium drip shields to protect the waste containers from water—at a cost of another $5 billion.
Plus, Yucca lies in an earthquake region. At least 33 earthquake faults surround the site, along with volcanic cinder cones.
These concerns served the anti-Yucca movement well. But it would still take years to kill the project altogether.
‘In my backyard’
Earlier this year, at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, about 60 miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles, a worker fell into a nuclear waste pool.
These Olympic-sized pools exist at each of the 106 nuclear reactors in the U.S., holding nuclear waste for five to 10 years while it cools. Then, teams of workers, usually private contractors, remove the waste and prepare it for more permanent dry cask storage. After almost 60 years of commercial nuclear power operations, this process is well-practiced; it’s part of the routine maintenance of every reactor in the world.
But it’s not every day that one of these workers falls in.
According to news reports, the workers had just removed the spent nuclear fuel. Afterward, one of them dropped his flashlight next to the pool. He reached down for it, slipped and fell into the water. Then he pulled himself out.
"The danger that’s supposedly out there, that tens of thousands or millions of people died? You will never be able to statistically find those people."
Though your first reaction might be to wonder if he developed a third leg or super powers, you might also wonder, as I did, if he collapsed and died on the spot. Nuclear safety analyst Dr. Allan Hedin asked a similar question about spent fuel in general. In Spent Nuclear Fuel: How Dangerous Is It?, he wrote that direct exposure to year-old spent nuclear fuel would reach lethal levels within a minute.
The worker didn’t die. News reports said he was taken to a hospital, checked for radiation poisoning and cleared. He went back to work the same day.
So how dangerous is nuclear waste?
Pro-nuclear scientists point out, first, that there's not much nuclear waste piled up in the U.S. The common reference is that, total, there's enough waste to cover a football field to a height of seven feet.
Second, they point out that fears about radiation seem to be overblown: No one died at Three Mile Island, "only" a few dozen people died at Chernobyl, it’s not clear anyone died as a direct result of radiation poisoning at Fukushima, and the Downwinders’ claims about cancer-causing radioactive fallout from the Nevada Test Site are questionable.
Norbert T. Rempe, a retired geologist who worked alongside Jim Conca at WIPP for years, is one of these pro-nuclear scientists. Born and raised in Germany, he thinks that country’s government is "bonkers" for promising to abandon its nuclear program by 2022. He calls the Fukushima and Chernobyl disasters "peanuts." Chernobyl was "a technical mess," he said. "But how many people really died as a result of Chernobyl? So far, roughly 50. And the danger that’s supposedly out there, that tens of thousands or millions of people died? You will never be able to statistically find those people." Regarding Fukushima, the problem wasn’t nuclear waste: "Not one person has gotten serious radiation poisoning or died of it," he said. "The only people so far who have died as a result of Fukushima are people like the farmer who was forced to evacuate and rather than evacuating he hanged himself."
Rempe considers nuclear waste nothing to worry about. Hanson agrees, equating fear of nuclear waste to fear of flying (or perhaps fear of crashing). People afraid to fly, he points out, often have no qualms driving, even though tens of thousands more people die every year in car accidents than in plane wrecks.
"You stagger around, disoriented, and then keel over and die."
"We have something quite similar with nuclear power," he said. "Even in the wake of Fukushima, people have become reasonably comfortable with the reactor. The reactor has the potential to be dangerous. If mismanaged, it can cause a catastrophe. But not the waste. And yet, for some reason, people are more afraid of the waste. Which defies logic. The waste is stationary. It doesn’t go anywhere. Every day it’s less hazardous than the day before." He would have no problem living next to a nuclear waste repository. "We’ve got to get to a point where we can look at these things in context," he said. "It’s not like this stuff’s going to come up out of the ground and kill people."
Dr. Kim Kearfott is a professor of nuclear engineering, radiological sciences, and biomedical engineering at the University of Michigan. She specializes in radiation detection, internal radiation dose assessment, and radiation safety practices. In the 1990s, she was integral to studies about possible radiation exposure at Yucca. She is, in other words, familiar with radiological nuclear waste risks.
Kearfott calls Hanson’s assessment too simplistic. Two kinds of effects concern her, neither involving waste coming out of the ground to kill people.
The first is statistical, she explained — the probability that someone receiving a relatively low dose of radiation will develop cancer or genetic defects. None of these effects can be certain; they’re based on often widely speculative probabilities. "This is really the complexity of siting a waste site," she said. "Scientists on site are in a predictive mode. And what makes it more difficult is that you’re trying to predict health risks tens of thousands of years from now based often on whether or not there might be a collective memory in the future that nuclear waste is buried in this spot."
Then there are deterministic effects — what will happen to someone exposed to high levels of radiation. The modern unit measuring exposure is the "gray," and the first responders at Chernobyl received between three and five gray. The victims suffered acute radiation syndrome. Their bone marrow stopped functioning. In many cases their bodies could not produce new blood. Fifty percent of them died within 60 days.
Exposure between five and 15 gray causes severe gastrointestinal problems, including difficulty holding down food. Rarely does anyone survive such extreme doses.
Above 15 gray, the brain and nerves malfunction. "You stagger around, disoriented, and then keel over and die," she said. "It might take a short while but you will die within five days, usually sooner."
But these effects are less relevant to nuclear waste once it’s underground. Kearfott said someone would need to be "right there with the waste" to experience serious radiation sickness or death.
But there are other risks. How likely is it that a truck driver transporting waste might fall asleep and wreck? What’s the possibility someone might fire a rocket at a rail car holding high-level waste? What happens if there’s a major earthquake near Yucca? Risk analysts — and local communities — need to weigh these questions, Kearfott said.
Hanson, however, is less than impressed with the argument and the risk. Yes, spent fuel would pose a danger if it escaped a shipping container, he said. But being solid, it can’t leak green goop into the environment like in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Daredevil scenarios. It contains gases, but they’re welded and bolted safely into thick steel and concrete containers. "The only possibility of having any release whatsoever would be a malicious attack on one of the shipping containers with very sophisticated anti-armor weaponry," he said.
He then repeated a point he brought up before: "Really, I want to stress that I would have no problem keeping one of these shipping containers in my backyard."
I told him people might offer to take him up on that. "People, particularly people in Las Vegas, seem to think there’s potential risk in those shipping containers, that radiation will get out," I told him.
He responded curtly: "Well, it won’t."
Stay the course
When George W. Bush ran for president in 2000, he declared Yucca would go forward only if supported by "sound science." The project continued, with the notion of "sound science" in debate ever since.
A 2005 email debacle fueled that debate. Leaked emails sent between 1995 and 2000 showed that government-hired scientists and engineers had "made up" information to make Yucca look safer. One email read, "In the end I keep track of 2 sets of files, the ones that will keep [quality assurance] happy and the ones that were actually used." Representative Jon Porter, a Nevada Republican, told the New York Times: "If the project has been based upon science, and the science is not correct, it puts the whole project in jeopardy. I believe these e-mails show science is not driving the project; it's expedience to get the job done."
The emails formed part of a pattern established over twenty years of wrangling: Despite assurances from engineers and scientists and government agencies and the NAS and even the President of the United States, Nevada wasn’t buying the Yucca project. Whether meant as political payback or stemming from real fear (rational or irrational), the state dug in its heels.
By 2008, it had become a mainstream political issue in Nevada. One of the most damning ads in the presidential election came from the Obama camp. The commercial showed Senator John McCain supporting the Yucca project, then saying he didn’t want nuclear waste transported through his home state of Arizona.
The message? Not in McCain’s back yard.
Obama promised to kill Yucca; he won Nevada 55.1 percent to 42.7 percent.
Once in office, Obama defunded the project. But he couldn’t just cut funding and forget about it. Whatever happened with Yucca, America still had a nearly 60-year-old legacy of nuclear garbage. So in January 2010, Obama assigned Energy Secretary Steven Chu to establish a Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future (BRC) to definitively fix the nuclear waste problem.
At an Energy and Water Development appropriations subcommittee meeting on March 4, 2010, Chu declared Yucca "not a workable option." Senator Patty Murray, a Democrat representing Washington, asked, "Who was consulted in making the decision that Yucca Mountain is no longer a viable option?"
"Well, one has to go back and look at the entire history of the choice of Yucca Mountain, the Nuclear Waste Act, all of those things," Chu said. "What one finds is that other things, other knowledge, other conditions, as they evolved, made it look increasingly not like an ideal choice."
"Even though the continents are drifting all around the globe, salt deposits have been stable for tens of millions of years,
up to hundreds of millions of years."
A half-century stalemate had suddenly broken, only to return us to exactly where we started. But this time, a true alternative already existed. The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant — or WIPP — is a low-level nuclear waste repository about 40 miles east of Carlsbad, New Mexico. WIPP opened in 1999. It is the only operational deep-geologic nuclear waste repository in the world.
The Obama-ordered BRC report — a 157-page account of the nation’s nuclear waste history with mostly technical legislative suggestions for the future — didn’t explicitly say WIPP should replace Yucca. But it certainly implied as much, with a full-page breakout describing the success of WIPP. And why not? The only major difference between WIPP and Yucca is the type of waste stored.
Yucca was intended for high-level nuclear waste — the spent nuclear fuel from commercial and defense nuclear reactors. WIPP doesn’t hold any of that stuff; it takes in "transuranic" or "TRU" waste — mostly clothing, tools and other materials left over from nuclear weapon production. But they shared the same general idea: sticking nuclear waste deep underground.
WIPP has had no serious safety incidents. The site took 27 years to open, delayed by "not in my backyard" lawsuits and NRC licensing concerns about land ownership, the potential for water and brine to leak into the facility, and fissures in the salt. Jimmy Carter cancelled the project in 1980; Ronald Reagan restarted it. But today, even opponents acknowledge its impressive safety record. Only a single traffic incident has been reported relating to transporting waste. No one was hurt.
Like Yucca, WIPP lies in the middle of a desert, on federally operated land. Unlike Yucca, however, it’s set in potash, salt heavily fortified with potassium. That makes it exactly the material suggested in the 1957 NAS report.
Unlike Las Vegas, Carlsbad does not have a huge tourism and gambling economy. Its population is about 27,000, with employment centered around potash mining for the last century; the WIPP facility already provides 1,000 jobs to Carlsbad. Employees point out that burying nuclear waste isn’t all that different from mining. Like mining, it involves digging into the ground and extracting material to the surface. Unlike mining, you don’t do anything with the extracted material. Instead, you fill the cavernous underground space with waste. Then you seal it off.
Though WIPP’s genesis was fraught with Yucca-like court battles and legislative haggling for almost 30 years, it sounds like a near-perfect replacement. A Forbes article published earlier this year suggested "Carlsbad has a Goldilocks geology that is the best solution yet found for entombing nuclear waste safely."
Legislators in Carlsbad have asked for high-level waste at WIPP. Workers at the facility have written supportive op-eds, offering "an almost ready-made solution" to "get the [high-level waste] buried deep in the earth, safe forever." And though New Mexico’s former Democratic governor, Bill Richardson, opposed bringing high-level nuclear waste to WIPP, his successor, Republican Susana Martinez, says she’ll consider it. Plus, just this week, Charles K. Ebinger, director of the prestigious Brookings Institution's Energy Security Initiative, released a paper suggesting unquestionably that WIPP should be the nation's nuclear waste site.
But it may not be as simple as replacing Yucca with WIPP.
"I'd say that it is premature to say which states future geologic disposal facilities might be located in," said Per Peterson, a nuclear scientist at the University of California at Berkeley who sat on the BRC. He said any new site for high-level waste is going to require a long licensing process not unlike Yucca. He also argued for not one site, but many sites across the country, where people are open to storing nuclear waste in their backyards.
While Carlsbad residents seem to want high-level nuclear waste, it’s a small city, even by New Mexico’s standards. Groups in Albuquerque, the state’s largest city, and one of the fastest-growing in the country, have vehemently opposed WIPP. Though the distance between Albuquerque and WIPP is about triple the distance between Las Vegas and Yucca, the circumstances seem similar. Could opposition from a large, politically powerful city derail plans for a high-level waste site? History’s already proven it’s possible.
"Hell, if you’re running at a swift enough pace? You might get to look at a boarded up hole in the side of a mountain for a good ten minutes"
Drive out of Nevada Joe’s parking lot and take I-95 a few hundred yards northwest in the direction of Beatty. Drive slowly. Then make a right onto another unmarked, paved road. Follow that for a mile or so. You’ll see DOE signs forbidding firearms, cameras, and recording devices. Drive on and you’ll reach a chain-link fence, just under six feet high and stretching as far as the eye can see to the northwest and the southeast. Look over or through the fence. Buildings sit lifeless in the distance, off-white stucco or maybe concrete. One building sits off to the right, boxcar-sized. Another, a guard tower, sits in the middle of the road, a double yellow line bisecting it.
When I first visited in February, I skipped Nevada Joe’s and just stood at the fence, looking around. There really is nothing out there. Step into the sand next to the road and you might see a hoof print or a jackrabbit carcass but that’s it. Silence, desolation. Google Maps puts the repository mere miles from the fence but it certainly wasn’t visible over the curving horizon. I had the urge to hop the fence and run toward Yucca but I had heard rumors about bored guards with loaded automatic weapons. I decided against it. Later, the guys at Nevada Joe’s dissuaded me further.
I’ve since found out that the fence extends only about a mile in either direction. The guards, according to Darrell Lacey, Nye County’s solicitor, hang out at Mercury, thirty miles down I-95 toward Las Vegas. The buildings at Yucca are not staffed, Lacey told me. Yucca is guarded by ground sensors and an around-the-clock video feed. The Mercury guards might use a helicopter to fly out and pick you up in the middle of the desert on federal trespassing charges, but it would take a while. A half hour, he said, maybe longer.
"And in that amount of time, hell, if you’re running at a swift enough pace? You might get to look at a boarded up hole in the side of a mountain for a good ten minutes," he said, laughing.
Normally, I’d be irritated at myself for being overly cautious about hopping a fence but really, as Lacey implied, there’s no point. The real action, as always in the nuclear waste stalemate, seems to be in the corridors of Washington, D.C.
Though every presidential administration since Eisenhower’s has touted nuclear power as integral to energy policy (and decreased reliance on foreign oil), none has resolved the nuclear waste problem. The impasse has not only allowed tens of thousands of tons of radioactive waste to languish in blocks of concrete behind chain link fences near major cities. It has contributed to a declining nuclear industry, as California, Wisconsin, West Virginia, Oregon, and other states have imposed moratoriums against new power plants until a waste repository exists. Disasters at Fukushima, Chernobyl, and Three Mile Island have made it very difficult, expensive, and time-consuming to build a nuclear reactor because of insurance premiums and strict regulations, and the nuclear waste stalemate has added significantly to the difficulties and expenses. Only two new nuclear power plants have received licenses to operate in the last 30 years.
Of course, even if all the nuclear reactors in the U.S. were shut down today (as they were in Japan after Fukushima and as they might be soon in Germany), nuclear waste would remain well beyond our lifetimes. Arguments continue on Capitol Hill about Yucca’s closing and whether or not Obama overstepped his executive powers in doing so. A licensing application had been submitted, no laws were changed by Congress to declare the site should not be used, yet the facility was defunded and the site was sealed off perhaps forever.
A national history stretching back to the dawn of the atomic age and a perpetual "he said, she said" fight over nuclear waste safety show how we got to this point. But many Yucca supporters point to the current Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid, as the man who ultimately influenced Obama’s decision to end the project. Reid was a House representative when the "Screw Nevada" bill was pushed through Congress and, the story goes, the pugnacious Reid, a lawyer and former boxer, took it as a personal insult. Through the years, he kept fighting to kill Yucca.
Reid’s people did not respond to repeated interview requests, so I spoke with University of Nevada political scientist Eric Herzik instead. I asked if Reid is the man who killed Yucca. Herzik straightened me out.
"Reid has worked to kill the project," he said. "Former Senator [and former Nevada Governor] Richard Bryan was often more visible leading the opposition for the state, but once Reid took the lead, combined with his leadership positions, Yucca faced an ever more difficult path."
Herzik added: "Yucca may not be dead, but Reid has been choking it for years."
That may be true. But look around and you’ll find a lot of people have been choking Yucca for years. President Obama saw this, listened to Senator Reid and did his best to finish the job. Because Obama and Reid are Democrats, Yucca proponents in Nye County believe that a Republican president would force the project forward. But Mitt Romney’s stance on Yucca isn’t too far from Obama’s. In an interview earlier this year with the Charleston, South Carolina Post and Courier, Romney said, "I think the people in Nevada should be given an offer with a financial incentive to take the nuclear waste" — which they have been offered, repeatedly — "and if they reject that offer, I think other states can propose an offer of what they would be willing to take, based upon a certain compensation level."
"Yucca may not be dead, but Reid has been choking it for years."
So it seems Romney doesn’t think nuclear waste should be forced on Nevada either. Activists both pro- and anti-Yucca have lauded the BRC report, which uses the phrase "consent-based" 22 times to describe how Yucca’s replacement should be found — implying that Nevada has not given consent. And while no other deep geologic nuclear waste repositories have been built worldwide (the problem is not limited to the U.S.), Finland and Sweden have made progress by first finding willing communities.
New Mexico seems interested in at least discussing whether the state might accept high-level nuclear waste. An Arizona legislator recently voiced interest, too. And though a proposed private nuclear waste dump on Utah’s reservation for the Skull Valley Band of Goshute Indians has never officially accepted waste because of disagreements between state legislators and its tiny population, it is technically licensed to do so.
In the meantime, we wait. About 3,000 tons of commercial nuclear waste are produced each year. Though the House has pushed millions in funding toward the NRC to continue licensing procedures at Yucca every year since President Obama began the project's closure in 2009, Senator Reid has worked hard to ensure none of that funding gets approved by a Senate vote. That funding may be symbolic anyway; experts say it could take another three years and tens of millions of dollars just to bring Yucca back its 2008 status. From there, estimates put Yucca's total cost around $100 billion. So is it worth restarting a project that is unpopular, incredibly expensive and at least 15 years behind schedule?
The U.S. Court of Appeals apparently didn't think so last week when it ordered the NRC to establish a new plan for securing nuclear waste where it sits now, near nuclear reactors all over the country. The appeals court didn't have much faith that Yucca or a similar storage sight is a near-term reality. In fact, it admonished the NRC for viewing an eventual Yucca-like facility as a given: "The commission apparently has no long-term plan other than hoping for a geologic repository," it wrote.
And so it goes. Most nuclear waste conversations in Washington D.C. today concern not repository alternatives, but whether or not the scientist recently appointed by President Obama to head the NRC is politically unbiased enough to step into the nuclear disposal fray.
Cutting through a lot of that, I asked the guys at Nevada Joe’s a simple question: Is Yucca worth restarting? They didn’t offer much. They wanted to talk about Area 51.
So during a tour of WIPP, I asked John Vandekraats, a project manager with Washington TRU Solutions, one of the contractors employed by WIPP, the same question — with the added suggestion that his site might offer a viable alternative solution to the seemingly endless debate over nuclear waste entombment.
Vandekraats, a tall, confident man with a New Mexico drawl similar to that of George W. Bush and without a hint of condescension, explained that it’s not his job to worry whether WIPP fits the nation’s high-level nuclear waste needs. He said it’s not his job to worry about the nuanced arguments against Yucca or how local communities might react to nuclear waste in their backyard. He said it’s not his job to worry about the price of potash or salt.
"I just worry about what Congress does," he said, smiling.
Follow Matt Stroud @ssttrroouudd
Thanks: Lawrence Weinstein, Dr. Eugene I. Smith, Irene Navis, Joe Strolin, Bob Halstead, Robert F. List, Dante Pistone, Darrell Lacey, Cash Jaszczak, Dr. Michael Voegele, Gary Hollis, Joe Ziegler, Steve Frishman, Judy Treichel, Brian O'Connell, Kevin Kamps, Jim Conca, Dr. Eric Herzik, Don Hancock, Dr. Norbert Rempe, Dr. Michael Corradini, Dr. Charles W. Forsberg, Dr. Alan S. Hanson, Dr. Kim Kearfott, Dr. Geoffrey Rothwell, Dr. Per F. Peterson, Russ Patterson, Steve Casey, John Vanderkraats, Casey Gadbury, Bob Forrest, Deb Gill, Dr. David Dobson and Dr. Allison M. Macfarlane