High-Level Atomic Waste
From the very birth of the idea of controlled nuclear fission, all concerned understood that managing the spent fuel rods from atomic reactors would be a horrifically complicated and massively expensive proposition. Many have warned over the years that it could not be done, and that for this reason alone, nuclear power plants should not be built or operated.
But the industry promised to manage these materials. There would be a central repository, they said. Radioactive waste would be out of sight and out of mind.
It hasn't happened. Tens of thousands of tons of spent fuel assemblies are piling up at reactor sites throughout the US---and the world. The rods in these arrays are so intensely radioactive that a human being standing unprotected nearby would die within a few short minutes. If they are not properly cooled and isolated, these rods from Hell could easily cause radioactive releases of apocalyptic proportions.
The industry is fond of saying that the solutions to this problem are "political, not technological." Its hired representatives often talk about reprocessing these arrays into re-usable fuel, but this technology has been tried, and has failed. It is extremely expensive, very very dirty and produces plutonium that could be used for nuclear weapons.
The industry is also pushing the Yucca Mountain waste dump, proposed for a dormant volcano in the Nevada desert. This proposed project has already consumed $11 billion in public funds. It is not yet licensed and may never be. Its earliest possible opening date is a decade away, at a project cost of at least $60 billion. Critics---who are so often right in this business---say a more realistic final cost would be $100 billion, and that the facility might never open anyway.
Yucca Mountain has been opposed by some 80% of the people of Nevada. It is a dormant volcano surrounded by other dormant volcanoes. A visible earthquake fault runs right through it. It hosts a pool of "perched water" above the areas meant to host spent fuel, meaning an earthquake could drop liquid matter onto stored fuel rods, potentially leading to a steam explosion.
Moving currently existing spent fuel rods to Yucca Mountain would today require tens of thousands of trips by truck and train. Accidents involving the shipment of radioactive materials are not uncommon. Spent fuel mishaps are inevitable; tens of millions of Americans would be exposed on our freeways and railways, and by these shipments passing by their homes.
For all the furor surrounding it, Yucca Mountain as designed could not handle all spent fuel projected to be produced by existing reactors. Dump space for spent fuel from any new reactors that might be built would have to go to a facility that has not been proposed, designed, sited or named.
Few if any other materials ever created by human beings can match spent nuclear fuel for toxicity, explosive potential or the ability to destroy human life at close range. As with so much else about nuclear power, the industry's promise to manage this trash has been dumped on the public---the taxpayers, the rate payers, the people of Nevada, the tens of millions on our highways and railways.
Ultimately, the only solution to the radioactive waste problem is to stop creating it.
Southwest Research Institute