High-Level Nuclear Waste Disposal: Our Eternal Problem

our high-level nuclear waste disposal problem

Our high-level nuclear waste disposal problem: The industry calls it “clean, safe nuclear energy,” but each plant has been manufacturing tons of waste that’s dangerously radioactive for millions of years – forever, as we humans count time.

300px-little_boyThe experts and geniuses put the finishing touches on The Bomb and looked around and said, “What do we do with all this leftover stuff?” The answer was, “Ella-fine-oh. We’ll figure it out later.” Later was a long time ago. We’re in decade number eight of the “Atomic Age” and no one has figured out what to do about high-level nuclear waste disposal.

Everyone who knows anything about it knows that high-level nuclear waste is super-dangerous right now and stays catastrophe-level dangerous for millions of years.

High-Level Nuclear Waste Disposal: Our Eternal Problem, by Bruce Brown

“High-Level Nuclear Waste Disposal,” by Bruce Brown

But hey. Getting high-level nuclear waste disposal figured out isn’t my problem. I’m clueless. That’s for the experts and geniuses, not me.

I do know what step one is, though. Stop making high-level nuclear waste disposal a bigger problem than it already is. Quit producing the stuff. Duh.

But wait! Don’t we need nuclear power to generate electricity?

No. We have better ways.

The only way to make electricity that’s stupider and more dangerous – and more expensive! – than burning fossil fuel to heat water into steam to turn a turbine is to heat the water with a nuclear reaction. We’ve figured out lots of ways to make electricity without burning anything – not even uranium.

So it’s inevitable, and it will take a long time, but one of these days we will stop making our high-level nuclear waste disposal problem worse. We should’ve shut that stuff down long ago. We might as well start shutting it down right now.

In the meantime, the failure of our experts and geniuses to solve this thing has made high-level nuclear waste disposal everyone’s problem.

So on the first weekend in December, a lot of people who’ve been working for a nuclear-free future will gather in Chicago. Activists from more than a dozen organizations will meet December 2-4 for the National Grassroots Radioactive Waste Summit at Cenacle Retreat and Conference Center, 513 W. Fullerton Parkway, Chicago, IL 60614-0361. Click here to register. Click here to see the schedule.

The experts and geniuses who work in the nuclear energy industry are specifically not invited.

Because, see, the experts and geniuses we’ve been counting on to solve our high-level nuclear waste disposal problem have proven they don’t even know how to handle low-level nuclear waste.

A recent article in The Atlantic describes an accident at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. WIPP is “America’s only permanent nuclear-waste storage site,” says The Atlantic. It’s about 2,000 feet underground in a New Mexico salt cavern near Carlsbad. It “was designed to only handle low-level waste.”

The Wikipedia article about WIPP reads like a tragedy of errors. The plan was hatched about 30 years too late, in the early ’70s. Congress finally authorized construction in 1979. After getting relocated a few times, and taking way too long to build, and costing way more than the highest guesses, WIPP finally accepted its first load of nuclear waste in 1999 – after we’d been making the stuff for more than 50 years. The first delivery came from Los Alamos National Laboratory, the bomb lab that started its nuclear waste production project in 1943.

We have over 70,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel and the inventory is increasing by about 2,200 metric tons per year.

In February, 2014, a drum ruptured at WIPP. “Radioactive material spewed through the caverns, some of it leaking aboveground as well,” says The Atlantic. This single ruptured drum of low-level nuclear waste made WIPP shut down for cleanup. In August, 2016, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported that experts and geniuses at the U.S. Department of Energy were “80% certain” that they would have the place re-opened by December. I did the math. If they actually do hit their December target, that’ll be almost a three-year cleanup for one ruptured drum. The report also mentions in passing that a truck caught fire when the drum burst.

The experts and geniuses came up with their December, 2016, goal when they realized they would miss their March target date. Get this. Quoting from the Santa Fe New Mexican again:

The agency knew it had only a 1 percent chance of meeting that [March] deadline, according to an audit released this week [August, 2016] by the Government Accountability Office, an investigating arm of Congress.

In 2015, the agency admitted it couldn’t safely reopen the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, even for limited operations, until at least December 2016 – and at a higher cost. Now auditors say even the revised cost estimate was flawed. The agency “did not follow all best practices for cost and schedule estimates,” federal auditors found, including having an independent analyst review them.

The report says the Energy Department also admitted in May 2015 that the pressure to meet the March 2016 deadline “contributed to poor safety practices in WIPP recovery efforts.”

The result of missteps in the process of reopening the facility, according to auditors, was a nine-month delay and a price tag $64 million higher than the original cleanup estimate. The Energy Department initially estimated it would cost $242 million to restore WIPP for limited waste disposal and an additional $77 million to $309 million to install a new ventilation system critical to providing clean air to workers. The delays led to an additional $61.4 million in operating costs at WIPP, and the cost to prepare the facility for limited activity went up another $2 million.

That report was from last August. A few days after The Atlantic report, dated November 2, Current-Argus reported that falling rocks interrupted the cleanup work for the fourth time since September. The report gets better:

WIPP has been scrambling to keep up with maintaining the mine’s infrastructure since they resumed ground control operations in November 2014, nine months after the underground was closed due to a fire and radiological release in early 2014.

WIPP officials had anticipated resuming waste emplacement operations in December.

[Department of Energy spokesman Tim] Runyon declined to speculate on whether the current rock fall will affect WIPP’s reopening date.

Did I mention that WIPP is how our experts and geniuses decided to handle low-level nuclear waste? Is it any wonder that, in our eighth decade of nonstop, ever-faster production of nuclear waste, our experts and geniuses haven’t come close to solving our high-level nuclear waste disposal problem?

What the experts and geniuses learned from the Yucca Mountain mess:

You’ve heard about Yucca Mountain, the disposal idea that’s died several times – mostly because its neighbors raised a ruckus. The experts and geniuses at the Department of Energy learned a lesson. They have a new idea: Consent-Based Siting. They’ll be going around the country asking people, “What would it take for us to talk you into letting us put a high-level nuclear waste disposal dump in your neighborhood?”

How long will it take to find someone who consents? If someone does, then what? How long before the dump is ready? Fifteen years? Thirty? Ever? How much will it cost? Hundreds of billions? A trillion or more?

What the experts and geniuses aren’t even close to figuring out: How will the tens of thousands of tons of high-level nuclear waste get delivered from hundreds of 40-to-70-year-old “temporary” storage sites?

derailment and fire

Train derailment and tanker fire by Heimdal, ND, May 6, 2015. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Willis.

The General Accountability Office says we have “over 70,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel” and “the inventory is increasing by about 2,200 metric tons per year.” How many trainloads is that? How many truck convoys? Who will consent to haul it? Do you want that stuff going down a highway or railroad track near you? If one accident with one drum of low-level nuclear waste can cause a three-year, several-hundred-million-dollar problem, can you imagine an accident with just one high-level nuclear waste storage cask? Have you heard about those “bomb train” accidents – the exploding oil trains? They’re not at all rare. Check out the map at Earth Justice. Can you imagine what would happen if a nuke train derails? Or if a semi hauling high-level nuclear waste gets into an accident? What’s the chance of a perfect record when we’re talking about tens of thousand of rail and highway shipments?

What about earthquakes?

Here’s a geologist’s take. Besides earthquakes, Gareth Fabbro looks at volcanoes, erosion, and corrosive water flow. His conclusion? If we’re very picky about choosing the right place, we can come up with something that “can keep nuclear waste safe for decades to centuries” while we figure out something else.

Well, okay then! We only have to figure out what to do with our high-level nuclear waste for now. Then, after we finally do that – a few decades from now? – we’ll have a few more “decades to centuries” to figure out what to do with it really. Then we’ll just dig it all up and do it right.

Yeah. After all these decades, the answer is still, “Ella-fine-oh. We’ll figure it out later.”

Leaving it to the experts and geniuses isn’t working. So it really is our problem.

If you’d like to work on the problem that the experts and geniuses can’t solve, join the National Grassroots Radioactive Waste Summit at Cenacle Retreat and Conference Center, 513 W. Fullerton Parkway, Chicago, on the weekend of December 2-4. Click here to register. Click here to see the schedule.

Step one?

Stop making it!

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