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Yucca Mountain, R.I.P.


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View Bill Walker's blog posts
26 February 2009, 4:46 PM
 

After 21 years of studies, debate, protests and lawsuits—and $9 billion from the pockets of taxpayers—Yucca Mountain is dead.

President Obama's proposed federal budget axes funding for the Department of Energy's plan to store the waste from nuclear reactors 1,000 feet under a mountain northwest of Las Vegas. Bloomberg reports:

Obama and Energy Secretary Steven Chu "have been emphatic that nuclear waste storage at Yucca Mountain is not an option, period," said department spokeswoman Stephanie Mueller. The federal budget plan Obama released today "clearly reflects that commitment," she said. "The new administration is starting the process of finding a better solution for management of our nuclear waste."

Yucca Mountain should have been dead on arrival. It was basically a scheme to shift responsibility for 100 million tons of radioactive waste from the power companies who generated it to the public. Leaving aside the ongoing debate over whether nuclear power has a role in fighting global warming, I've always felt that if the utilities were willing to take federal subsidies to build their nukes, and had no problem banking the profits from selling nuclear power to their customers, they should be responsible for disposing of the waste.

Most Americans, certainly most Nevadans, agreed. And few were comfortable with the idea of nuclear waste being shipped through 43 states on its way to Yucca Mountain, leaving the shipments vulnerable to accidents or terrorist attack.

So now we're back to square one, with reactors' wastes stored on site at 120 locations around the country. Nuke fans say it would be safer in one spot, but scientists say it's safe enough where it is, at least temporarily. However the question is eventually settled, the dilemma is a result of staggering short-sightedness: Why did we build 104 reactors in the first place without knowing what to do with the waste?

Yucca Mountain was the only site studied in depth for a permanent repository for high level nuclear waste.
The states wherein most nuclear power plants reside had far more political power in DC, and had quickly squelched any such sequestration in their own backyards.
There is just no acceptable place to put these deadly products.
More importantly:
Because the storage must be incredibly long-term, and ALL designed containers will ultimately fail many millions of years (billions in the case of U238) before high-level wastes degrade into nonradioactive elements, no radioactive materials can be truly removed from the environment once mined and processed.
The containers and shields are designed from extremely expensive materials, titanium and expensive alloys.
Economists continue to attempt to externalize the true costs of nuclear power (as with other fuels), rationalizing the poisoning of future life whenever determining present values. Yet there are no externals.
Such thinking is the root of our failure to live sustainably.

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