Nuclear-waste woes

Tom Adams
Globe and Mail
February 6, 2002

Letter to the Editor
Globe and Mail

Re: Back in Power, Feb. 2, 2002

If nuclear power’s expansion awaits only a repository for its waste, an assumption repeatedly expressed in this article, then we would expect to find that waste problems caused nuclear power’s failure to provide economically priced electricity while paying back its original investment.

On the contrary, Canada’s nuclear program has failed economically despite the effective subsidy of ignoring much of its waste costs. Future federal taxpayers should expect major nuclear-waste bills arriving in the next couple of decades. Taxpayers in Ontario and New Brunswick should expect a particularly steep nuclear-waste bill.

Nuclear expansion died not only because of its waste problems, but also because of the weight of economic failure (as demonstrated by Ontario Hydro), reactor safety concerns (as demonstrated by Chernobyl), and proliferation concerns (as demonstrated by India and Pakistan). Even if the waste problem magically disappeared, the other showstoppers would remain.

Tom Adams
Executive Director
Energy Probe

Back in power

February 2, 2002, Globe and Mail, by Doug Saunders

It really does feel like the safest place in the world, this room carved from the lava rock 2½ kilometres inside a mountain. Dimly lit, very dry, eerily still, it has – despite the roar of the ventilators – the eternal calm of a tomb. The temperature is maybe a degree warmer than that of your house, but if all goes according to plan, it will soon be a lot less comfortable: more than 150 degrees Celsius, enough heat to roast a chicken, heat that will last for thousands and thousands of years, heat generated, along with many more worrisome rays, by the largest stockpile of radioactive material ever assembled.

The room is our final destination, after driving north from Las Vegas deep into the top-secret test range that blots the heart of the Nevada desert and boarding a train that clacked down a tunnel to the centre of a dry, dead volcanic peak.

In this stygian location, they have carved a high, wide chamber that a panel of scientists has deemed to be the safest, most secure place in the United States. Upon arrival, you do feel you could curl up on a flat rock and catch a good, deep sleep, but for the four mining technicians arguing about their Harley-Davidsons.

This will be the final resting place for the collected legacy of a wild half-century of atomic misadventure, encased in two-metre-high alloy cylinders, draped in titanium sheets and lined up in tunnels stretching outward over a thousand-acre underground lattice. It will span the atomic age: the uranium bricks that got it all started in 1942 on a squash court at the University of Chicago; the plutonium that filled the cores of the first hydrogen bombs; the reactor waste from Three Mile Island; the spent fuel from nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, and the cores from the warheads that were aimed at Moscow during the Bay of Pigs, all part of 70,000 tons of toxic detritus from every Cold War weapons project, experimental atomic pile and commercial nuclear reactor ever built.

The Yucca Mountain high-level waste disposal site, when it opens for business, will mark the final chapter in the 60-year odyssey of the glowing castoffs.

In the most elaborate garbage dump ever envisioned by man (and, not coincidentally, the biggest not-in-my-back-yard story ever told), technicians here have spent 20 years and more than $6-billion (U.S.) trying to figure out how to keep these deadly orphans of atomic history out of human contact for the next 100,000 years. To most North Americans, Yucca Mountain marks a quiet, bureaucratic end to an unfortunate chapter in the history of technology, a pauper’s burial for the nuclear era.

No nuclear power plant has been built in North America since 1977, when the business was decimated by the Three Mile Island disaster, and the nuclear-arms race came to an end in 1989, with the collapse of the Cold War. Along with the waste, then, you’d think that we would be burying the culture of the atom.

People in the nuclear-power business know otherwise: Yucca Mountain, when it finally completes its long political journey, will mark a whole new beginning.

Last month, this mountain burial site suddenly leapt into the public consciousness. The U.S. Department of Energy, responsible for all things radioactive, announced that it had accepted Yucca Mountain as the sole repository for all military and civilian nuclear waste in the United States. This means that President George W. Bush soon will send the plan to Congress for review and approval, a 90-day process that most observers expect to pass with much debate but little real opposition.

The U.S. plan is certain to become the model for other nations, including Canada, whose plans to bury its reactor waste deep within the Canadian Shield are modelled on Yucca Mountain. “Canada is at least 10 years behind the United States on this,” says Bill Seddon, an engineer who works at Yucca Mountain for Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. “Their research is far more extensive, so we can expect to adopt a lot of their ideas when we end up choosing a site.”

The people of Nevada, of course, will protest loudly about the plan for Yucca Mountain, but the rest of the nation has long considered the state a dumping ground, and these days there are more important matters at hand. The deep burial of radioactive waste has become an urgent topic. The Sept. 11 attacks, demonstrating the destructive force of a fuel-laden jumbo jet, suddenly made North America’s 200 nuclear reactors, most of them near urban centres, seem like catastrophes waiting to happen. This week, the danger level spiked with the news that al-Qaeda terrorists have planned attacks on nuclear sites and researched specific targets.

Engineers have been quick to argue that the reactors themselves, encased within reinforced concrete domes, are strong enough to withstand a direct hit. But their waste – tens of thousands of tons of uranium, plutonium, deuterium and other highly toxic metals – is kept in pools and dry-storage casks usually located in comparatively flimsy buildings right next door. As well, the military’s waste from warheads and ships (40 per cent of U.S. naval vessels are nuclear-powered) is stored in similarly insecure structures.

So, for 60 years, all this deadly material has been piling up at 130 sites across the nation, a nagging worry that has now turned into an all-out panic. Yucca Mountain “gives us the opportunity to clean up the environment from a legacy of the Cold War,” says Patrick Rowe, a senior engineer who has been with the project for 20 years (before that, he was involved with the atom bomb tests that helped to create some of the waste in the first place).

“Republicans haven’t traditionally been known as friends of the environment, but this is a wonderful opportunity to clean up some major messes that have been made in the United States.”

In one sense, he is correct: Once the expected 10,000 trainloads of radioactive waste have been carried into the Nevada site over the next 24 years, the threat spread across the landscape will be reduced dramatically. It will, for instance, allow the final dismantling of the 18 nuclear reactors that have ceased operating but still contain tons of their own waste. And it will put high-level weapons waste out of the hands of terrorists, who could assemble it into a working weapon.

What Yucca Mountain will not do, though, is put an end to the nuclear industry. Quite the contrary.

“I think there’s a popular view that Yucca Mountain will get rid of nuclear power forever,” says Dan Balduini, an executive with Westinghouse TRU Solutions, the company that runs the U.S. Energy Department’s underground dump for low-level radioactive waste in Carlsbad, N.M.

“What people don’t realize is that it’s probably going to create a situation where it becomes possible to create even more nuclear waste, and it’s just going to keep on coming. This thing will become the justification for a whole new wave of nuclear plants.”

At the moment when we are most afraid of the atom’s power, nuclear power has suddenly become a coveted commodity once again. And this burial site, nestled in the sun-blasted atomic heartland, has turned out to be the key to a nuclear renaissance.

To understand how a waste dump and a terror attack could make nuclear power popular again, it helps to follow the interesting life of Dan Keuter.

He is, for lack of a better term, a collector of nuclear power plants, and his zeal has driven up prices. Officially, Keuter is vice-president of nuclear business development for Entergy Corp., the New Orleans firm cited as North America’s third-largest energy company. He also is a lifelong atomhead, having begun his working life as a college graduate at an Oregon nuclear plant.

“The political climate for nuclear power right now is better than it has been for many years,” Keuter enthused recently as he prepared to enter a meeting in Washington.

While the collapse of mighty Enron Inc. has made a hash of the energy business, sending everyone’s shares plummeting and putting a stop to most deals, he feels there is little doubt that owning generators will remain a solid business. The question is not whether construction of nuclear plants will resume, but how soon.

Nuclear power was supposed to be a dead technology. As recently as four years ago, even experts within the energy industry agreed that reactors were a bad investment, that no new ones would ever be built and that old plants should be mothballed or sold off as quickly as possible. They were fantastically expensive to put up, inefficient and prone to lengthy shutdowns, politically hairy, and laden with expensive long-term liabilities, especially those involving waste.

In the words of one energy executive, by the 1990s shutting down power plants was considered “the ultimate nuclear Advil.”

All this changed, thanks to Dan Keuter and a small group of fellow true believers. In 1998, he surprised the industry by leading his company’s purchase of the Boston-area Pilgrim plant, an old facility whose owner had considered shutting it down. It was a highly risky purchase, although the price now seems amazing: $13-million, plus $67-million for fuel. Given that the plant cost hundreds of millions to build, Keuter and his colleagues were essentially given the keys and told to drive it away. (They also entered a bidding war that year on Ontario’s Bruce B nuclear facility, now run by British Energy.)

This marked the first move in what would become a heated market for used nuclear-power plants, being sold off by bogged-down public utilities into a fully deregulated market led by companies like Entergy and AmerGen, which between them bought a dozen plants. By the end of 1999, the fire-sale prices had ended and companies were paying more than $1-billion for some plants, prices that investors still considered to be good.

The primary reason was the rising cost of energy. Natural gas was becoming extremely pricey just as electricity demand was going through the roof. Both have dropped in recent months, but it has become an orthodoxy in many parts of the energy industry that the world is nearing the end of its easily obtainable oil and gas supplies (a liberal view in the 1970s has become gospel among conservative businesspeople).

At the same time, nuclear power plants quietly became much more efficient during the 1980s. They used to operate only 60 per cent of the time, but computer technology and better management have raised the figure to 90 per cent, and refuelling shutdowns that used to take months now last just two or three weeks. As well, reactors have turned out to have much longer life spans than once thought. It’s now customary to request that operating licences be extended 20 years.

With nuclear power beginning a renaissance, and energy companies thinking of building the first new plant in a quarter-century, along came Sept. 11.

According to Keuter, the terrorist attacks, paradoxically, made nuclear power seem even more valuable to Washington officials and Wall Street investors. “It was a wakeup call that we have to do something about national security as far as energy supply. . . . It really raises the question that we have to wean ourselves from foreign oil and foreign supplies of energy and start developing our own. And nuclear power isn’t the only solution, but it could be a major contributor.

“The downside,” he acknowledges, “is that it raises questions about terrorist acts against all kinds of facilities, including nuclear power plants. But in reality, the nuclear power industry is better equipped to handle these types of events than almost any other sector out there.”

Two and a half decades seem to have put a lot of people on Keuter’s side. In the 1970s, atomic energy was a major target for environmentalists, who were concerned with old-fashioned pollution, especially the radioactive kind. Since then, ecological worries have shifted to the more ominous and less visible issue of global warming, for which the legacy of fossil-fuel emissions is usually at least partly blamed. A large percentage of these come from electrical generation, the majority of which is still done by burning from natural gas, oil and coal.

In other words, nuclear power is starting to look like a clean, pollution-free alternative. Is it possible, now that it seems the waste issue is about to be solved, that environmental groups will begin promoting atomic power once again? Not likely.

But, to the alarm of some, it turns out that the success of environmental regulations designed to curb ozone-destroying emissions have actually created an ideal breeding ground for a nuclear-power revival: Greenpeace, against its will, can be credited with making the atom hip again.

“There’s been an environmental movement around global warming and air pollution that’s helped us quite a lot,” Keuter says. “This is as important to us as the price instability of natural gas – coal makes it harder and harder to meet those environmental regulations, so nuclear becomes the safe alternative.”

Recent surveys show that, among the general public, nuclear power is more popular than it has been for a generation. And among the men who run the United States these days, the atom has become a bona fide friend of the Earth. “If you want to do something about carbon-dioxide emissions,” U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney said last year, “then you ought to build nuclear power plants.”

And they will build nuclear power plants, with Washington’s kiss of approval as soon as gas gets expensive again, and – far more crucially – as soon as there’s some place to put the waste.

This has been the issue’s sine qua non for more than 40 years. For opponents, radioactive waste is the fatal flaw, the one factor that allows any technology, any scheme, to be dismissed out of hand, no matter how safe or clean it may otherwise claim to be. For supporters, waste is the one highly expensive, endlessly amortized end product that shatters the economics of nuclear power. With a safe repository, building nuclear plants is a snap. “High-level waste is an issue to get public acceptance, and once you get public acceptance, you get Wall Street acceptance,” Keuter explains.

A dump, it seems, is sometimes more than a dump. In this case, it is an engine.

On the long journey to Yucca Mountain, you realize that the atomheads have always been with us. In the past 25 years, when atomic power and nuclear weapons became unacceptable topics in polite society, they simply disappeared into the desert.

There are no signs pointing out Yucca Mountain. You simply turn right on Highway 95 at Nevada Joe’s, a 24-hour state-licensed brothel, and pass through a heavily guarded security checkpoint. Then, as you wind through a blasted desert valley, you find yourself amid a wonderland of Cold War atomic fantasies.

Here are three hulking, abandoned factories, known as R-MAD, E-MAD and Test Cell C, home to the Pentagon’s secret 20-year program to develop nuclear-powered rocket and jet engines. Nearby is the 500-metre BREN tower, which in 1962 had a plutonium reactor placed at its peak to test the effects of radiation on Asian villages.

It stands in front of the mountain that was the site of the Egress Program, in which thousands of soldiers burrowed deep underground before the mountain was subjected to a simulated nuclear attack. The troops stayed where they were for months until the radiation had dissipated, and then chewed their way out with boring machines to launch an MX missile counterattack.

Between the two sites lie several others, their original uses forgotten, still too radioactive to approach. And not far to the south is Mercury, where more than 800 atomic, hydrogen and neutron bombs were exploded, above and below ground, over almost half a century.

The Yucca Mountain site is located at the end of this winding road. Given its neighbours, is it any wonder that the people running it are given to some utopian excesses?

Patrick Rowe, the affable engineer, uses the florid language of the atomhead: a barrage of statistics, carefully constructed probabilities and actuarial projections designed to nullify any concerns about this highly dangerous project.

Here is a typical placating pronouncement, made as we pass an abandoned MX missile site: “If you lived within 100 feet of a rail transport corridor, and if 50,000 radioactive shipments went past your house over 24 years, you’d get less than a quarter of a millirem of radiation per year, and a chest X-ray gives you 15 millirems.”

Like most atomheads, he dismisses nuclear skeptics as “antis,” a meddlesome and irrational nuisance. With the Bush administration in power, the antis are barely even a nuisance.

Of course, there is a good chance that his optimism will be borne out. Actuarial tables offer little comfort to the irradiated, but Yucca Mountain’s eternal graveyard appears a much safer option than scattering deadly waste over 130 U.S. locations, and 50 or so in Canada. What Yucca Mountain supporters are more reluctant to discuss, a dangerous flaw in the program, is that it will do nothing to make reactors safer from terrorist attacks.

U.S. reactors are required to store their high-level waste in pools on site for the first five years, when it is the most radioactive and considered simply too dangerous to move. This means that every active reactor will still house, with varying degrees of impermeability, enough deadly waste at any time to create a very nasty plume of death. Even Rowe admits that “this site solves the long-term security problem, but not the short-term.”

There may be a solution, according to Richard Garwin, the physicist most often credited with inventing the hydrogen bomb.

He later became an outspoken antinuclear activist and disarmament advocate, using his positions with the Federation of Atomic Scientists and the Council on Foreign Relations to argue for the elimination of nuclear weapons. In recent years, however, he also has come to believe that nuclear power is not only beneficial but also the key to total disarmament.

“What I want them to do is to put the stuff in there, inside Yucca Mountain,” he says, “and if necessary, in the near future, I hope we’ll be able to take it out again.” This will be possible, he and co-author Georges Charpak, the 1992 Nobel laureate in physics, argue in their 2001 book Megawatts and Megatons, because weapons-grade radioactive material will be used to fuel a new wave of nuclear reactors, rendered safe from terrorism and turned into efficient electricity.

Garwin’s proposed tradeoff – a new look at nuclear power in exchange for a final farewell to warheads – is possible thanks only to the buffering force of Yucca Mountain.

He warns, however, that the anodyne logic of the atomheads should not be allowed to prevail: “What I say is that nuclear power isn’t helped by its most fanatical supporters, who say that radiation in small amounts can’t hurt you. Well, it can, even in small amounts. If we can be honest about that, and honest about the problem of waste, then maybe we can start to see through to some of the benefits.”

Deep within Yucca Mountain, it’s even easier to see that humanity simply has to find a better way to turn matter into energy. Nuclear fission has turned out to be a tradeoff to make Dr. Faustus proud: In return for a few decades of cheap, ecological, democratic benefit, we now are forced to contemplate eternity. Somehow, the deadly rocks have to be returned to the ground.

Until we come up with something better, perhaps Yucca Mountain’s artificial eternity will have to do. Here in the belly of the mountain, that eternity feels warm and secure. To see even a glimmer of sunlight from here would entail a half-hour hike through solid rock.

Turn the other direction, however, and you’re lost in an endless underground maze.

Keep off the grass – forever

How do you bar entry to a toxic-waste dump for tens of thousands of years?

Radioactive materials stored at Yucca Mountain will have half-lives of 10,000 years, and could be toxic as long as 100,000 years. That’s far longer than the human race has existed, so since the 1980s, scientists have been studying ways to warn future civilizations to stay away.

Over time, climate change could transform the stark location into a desirable site for a city, but anthropologists say no language spoken today would still exist, so linguists, science-fiction writers, semioticians and engineers were hired to come up with solutions.

In a 1984 report titled Communication Measures to Bridge Ten Millennia, the U.S. Department of Energy suggested creating an “atomic priesthood” and a “ritual-and-legend” system that would use religion to spread word of the underground horrors.

Other ideas considered: using chemicals to make the area so “repulsively malodorous” that no one would go near it; erecting giant panels using comic strips to illustrate the danger, and something vaguely described as “microsurgical intervention with the human molecular blueprint” – in other words, encoding warnings inside the genes of the entire human race.

Another study suggested covering the area in black rocks, so it would be impossibly hot all the time, or sculpting the local geology to make it dizzying, nauseating and forbidding, with no straight lines or view of the sky.

Yucca Mountain officials say they will probably adopt the following, somewhat less radical measures adopted by a New Mexico facility for less radioactive waste. They would come into effect when the site shuts down in 300 years, and are thought to make it secure for 10,000 years.

The great wall: A huge, erosion-proof berm 11 metres high and 33 metres wide would encircle the site and contain hundreds of “specially configured metal objects” and magnets to reflect radar and provide a unique magnetic signature.
Stonehenge II: Granite monuments eight metres high and weighing 20 tons would be placed around the perimeter. They would display messages (engraved in seven languages that best represent humanity) plus infographics and cartoons warning of the hazard below.
Temple of doom: At the centre of the site, a solid granite temple (with an open roof to allow natural lighting) would contain a variety of stay-away messages in words and pictures.
Tunnel vision: Rooms walled in granite and buried well below the surface to guard against erosion and climate change would contain the same information as the temple overhead.
The plan: Intercept any attempt in the distant future to dig into the mountain by someone ignorant of what it contains.
Buried treasures: Thousands of small warning markers would be placed just below the surface at random throughout the area. Each of the nine-inch-diameter disks made of granite, aluminum oxide and fired clay would carry a warning message in one of the seven chosen languages.


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