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The Right Decision
by Gerald E. Marsh and George S. Stanford
Opening the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository is right for Nevada. It's right for anyone who pays for electricity. It's right for public safety. It's right for energy security. And it's right for national security. Why is it needed? Because reactor sites are running out of room to store their used fuel, and building more facilities would waste ratepayers' money. Also, we should start moving the radioactivity below ground, where it can do no harm.
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Risk from transportation? Forget it. There have already been over 3,000 shipments of spent fuel with no release of radioactivity in the few traffic accidents that have occurred. The casks are virtually indestructible. One was deliberately hit by an anti-tank weapon, and the potential hazard turned out to be very small because few particles of damaged fuel came back out through the hole. A terrorist who assaulted one of those casks would be wasting his talents - he could do far more damage by attacking a gasoline tanker.
Then there is the concern about leakage from the repository thousands of years hence. That comes from requiring that buried material be isolated for more than ten thousand years. The worry is misplaced, for two reasons.
First, anything that did leak into the water table would be lost in the natural background radiation by the time (centuries from now) that it reached the surface. There are already far more plutonium and fission products under the ground at the Nevada test site - with no special containment, and posing no threat to people - than could ever be expected to leak through the confinement barriers at Yucca Mountain, even in ten thousand years.
Second, the ten thousand year criterion is irrelevant. The needed isolation time can be dramatically reduced by abandoning our wasteful "once-through" policy (we pass the fuel once through a reactor and then throw it out, with 95 percent of its energy still there). That fuel is a valuable resource as feed stock for advanced fast reactors. When suitably reprocessed fuel is used in fast reactors, essentially all of the long-lived radioactive isotopes are consumed, leaving only the real waste - the fission products - whose radioactivity would fall below any level of concern in just a few hundred years.
Fast reactors have other advantages. For one thing, there is a pyrometallurgical process that recycles their fuel without ever producing separated plutonium that could be used for bombs - unlike the Purex process now used in other countries, which does turn out chemically pure plutonium. Also, the "pyroprocessing" product is far more proliferation-resistant than today's unreprocessed used fuel.
The time has come to reopen the issues of reprocessing and to move to the inherently safe fast reactor. With reprocessing facilities and fast reactors near the repository, Nevada would greatly benefit in the short term from the economic activity associated with opening the repository, and in the long term from the sale of electricity to other states.
Realistically then, Yucca Mountain should merely be an interim storage facility. There is no need for spent fuel to stay there forever. But even if it does, it poses no realistic risk to present or future generations.
Gerald E. Marsh is a physicist who served with the U.S. START delegation and was a consultant to the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations on strategic nuclear policy and technology for many years. He is on the advisory board of The National Center for Public Policy Research.
George S. Stanford is a nuclear reactor physicist, now retired from Argonne National Laboratory after a career of experimental work pertaining to power-reactor safety.
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