“White House Buries Yucca,” read the headlines on Friday after Secretary of Energy told a Senate hearing that the Nevada repository is “no longer an option” for long-term storage of nuclear waste.Instead, Chu told the Senate that the Obama Administration will be content to allow spent fuel rods to sit in storage pools and dry casks for an indeterminate period. Meanwhile, the administration’s proposed 2010 budget calls for scrapping all spending on Yucca altogether “while the administration devises a new strategy toward nuclear waste disposal.”
The decision was celebrated by Harry Reid, who bragged to readers on his website, “It was very easy working with the Obama Administration to bring about these cuts. This project is dead, and this announcement is another indicator that our efforts are paying off.” It also gratified anti-nuclear activists, who have long seen Yucca Mountain as a choke point at which they can cut off all nuclear development. Greenpeace immediately called for the Administration to cancel plans for new construction and to begin plans to close existing reactors.
Supporters of nuclear, meanwhile, found themselves completely flummoxed. Even as Chu testified before, the current issue of The Weekly Standard was assuring its conservative readership that the Obama Administration would never dare forfeit the $30 billion it has already collected from utilities to build the repository (as if an administration proposing a trillion-dollar deficit would choke over another $30 billion.) At the hearings, Senator John McCain, who supported nuclear during his Presidential campaign, said the decision imperils the current nuclear revival.
But is this really true? The cancellation of Yucca may not be nearly as bad for the budding nuclear renaissance as it might first seem. In fact, it may provide the opportunity to prove once and for all that, in reality, there is no such thing as nuclear waste.
First of all, lead-lined dry cask storage, developed since Yucca was conceived twenty years ago, has emerged as a viable interim solution that can accommodate untreated spent fuel rods for at least 75-100 years. Even Alison McFarlane, the MIT geologist who fed Al Gore the line that “nuclear reprocessing only makes things worse,” admits “there’s no need to rush into geological solutions right now.”
But the real opportunity here is to reexamine the idea that spent fuel rods can only be buried in the first place. The whole concept of “nuclear waste” only emerged after President Jimmy Carter abandoned the reprocessing of spent fuel rods in 1977. France went ahead with reprocessing and now stores all its high-level waste from 30 years of producing 75 percent of its electricity in one room in Le Hague.
When you consider the content of a spent fuel rod, the idea of building 60 miles of underground tunnels to isolate it from the world seems almost ludicrous. Ninety-five percent of a spent fuel rod is plain old natural uranium-238, the non-fissionable variety that exists in granite tabletops, stone buildings and coal plants (which emit 100 times the radioactivity of nuclear reactors without being regulated). U-238 has a half-life of 4.5 billion years, is only mildly radioactive and could be put right back in the ground where it came from.
Of the remaining 5 percent of a rod, 1 percent is fissionable uranium-235, which can be recycled as fuel. Another 1 percent is plutonium, also recyclable as fuel. Then much of the remaining 3 percent has use as medical and industrial isotopes. Forty percent of all medical procedures in this country now involve some form of radioactive isotope, and nuclear medicine is a $4 billion business. Yet we must import all our tracer material from Canada because all of our isotopes have been headed for Yucca Mountain.
In fact, Yucca was never anything but a colossally misguided effort to cover up the mistake of abandoning nuclear reprocessing. What’s needed is to revive the recycling effort. Areva, France’s nuclear giant, is already preparing to reopen the facility at Barnwell, South Carolina, that the Carter Administration closed down. We already get half our current reactor from old Soviet weapons, thanks to France’s recycling effort. Why not start employing the technology in this country?
So shed no tears for Yucca Mountain. It may be the best thing that happened yet in the nuclear revival.