Home' Technology Review : July August 2009 Contents Q&A
In 1982, the U.S. government formally
accepted the dirty job of finding a place
to dispose of highly radioactive nuclear
waste, including spent reactor fuel, which
will remain radioactive for hundreds of
thousands of years. Five years later, Con-
gress directed the U.S. Department of
Energy to begin seriously investigating
a single site---Yucca Mountain, NV---as
a permanent geological repository. But
earlier this year, with 60,000 metric tons
of spent fuel clogging storage facilities
at power plants, the Obama administra-
tion announced that it would cut Yucca's
funding and seek alternatives.
Allison Macfarlane, a geologist at
George Mason University and the editor
of Uncertainty Underground: Yucca Moun-
tain and the Nation's High-Level Nuclear
Waste, is a leading technical expert on
nuclear-waste disposal who recently sat
on a National Research Council com-
mittee evaluating the Department of
Energy's nuclear-power R&D programs.
She spoke with David Talbot, Technol-
ogy Review's chief correspondent, about
the future of nuclear waste---and what it
means for the future of nuclear power.
TR: You are known as a Yucca critic. Does
this mean you oppose nuclear power?
Macfarlane: Not at all. From the point
of view of climate change, we absolutely,
definitely need nuclear power.
Only last year, the Bush administration
filed the necessary application with the
Nuclear Regulatory Commission to
construct Yucca. Now Obama s energy
secretary, Steven Chu, says Yucca is "off
the table." Is it really unsuitable?
Yes. The area is seismically and vol-
canically active. More significantly, the
repository would have an oxidizing envi-
Life after Yucca
Photograph by CHRIS CRISMAN
ronment---meaning materials there would
be exposed to free oxygen in the air. Nei-
ther spent nuclear fuel nor canister mate-
rials are stable in such an environment in
the presence of water. The United States
is the only country that is considering a
repository in an oxidizing environment.
Then why was Yucca Mountain the
government s choice for 22 years?
Mostly political reasons. Originally
three sites were considered: Yucca, and
ones in Texas and Washington State.
Congress balked at the price tag of char-
acterizing three sites at once. In the ensu-
ing fight to keep the waste program alive,
Nevada was the politically weakest of the
three and lost the battle.
Politics helped end the matter, too.
Nevada s senior senator, Harry Reid, is
now Senate majority leader and has long
Maybe---but the technical objections
are serious and real.
Will the administration s decision stall any
renaissance in nuclear energy?
No. There's no historical example
showing that a lack of a plan for nuclear
waste will halt the progress of nuclear
Within the next five years, almost every
nuclear power plant will have dry-cask
storage: the waste will be moved from
storage pools to outdoor concrete-and-
steel casks inside plant security perim-
eters. As an interim solution, that's quite
safe. But eventually the casks will corrode
and break down and release radioactive
material into the environment, though
it will probably take hundreds of years.
That's why we need geological storage.
What s the right geology?
Waste should be stored in a reducing
environment [one not exposed to free
oxygen], and this usually means under-
neath the water table, though salt forma-
tions can be reducing even if they are not
below the water table. The Swedes and
Finns are planning to put their waste
inside granite and metamorphic rock,
and the storage casks will be below the
water table. And that's all okay. Spent
fuel---which is just uranium dioxide, fis-
sion products, and actinides [radioactive
elements, including plutonium]---is rela-
tively stable under such conditions. With
no free oxygen, it just sits there.
Will we still need such storage even if
future reactors burn more of the plutoni-
um---or even if future generations decide
to reprocess some of the old spent fuel to
Yes. The French reprocess spent fuel,
but they still need a repository. They are
doing research on a site at Bure, in north-
east France. It has a kind of sedimentary
rock that's relatively fine grained, and it's
a reducing environment.
So where are the suitable storage
locations in the United States?
There are lots, all over the country.
Then it should be easy to name two or three.
I haven't studied anything in detail,
and I don't want to get anybody upset.
But we have a huge country, and there are
many locations. One thought, though,
is that sites could be in locations where
people already have a comfort level with
nuclear power, which is how the Swedes
and Finns have been successful.
It took 22 years and $8 billion to get
nowhere on Yucca. Politics aside, how
long will it take, and how much will it cost,
to get U.S. storage sites opened?
We didn't get nowhere. We learned
quite a bit. We should set aside some-
thing on the order of a few decades to get
this right. It will cost billions, but that's
part of the price of nuclear power.
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