Nuclear Waste Dilemma

On December 2, 1942, a team of scientists at the University of Chicago, led by Enrico Fermi, created man's first controlled, self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction. Today, the United States generates 21% of its electrical power from nuclear reactors and its nuclear arsenal is perhaps the largest in the world. Both peaceful and military uses of nuclear energy generate nuclear waste which is radioactive and requires isolation from the biosphere.

Since the 1950s there has been an expanding effort in the U.S. (and internationally) to develop plans for disposing the accumulating high-level nuclear wastes that result from nuclear technology and isolating this material from the environment for the long term. Over the years, proposals have varied in creativity from space launchings, to burial in deep ocean trenches, to on-site storage in what are called "dry-casks". However, the plan which seems most likely to proceed in the United States is geologic burial deep beneath the earth's surface.

Military waste is now destined for geologic disposal in a salt bed at the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP) facility being constructed near Carlsbad, New Mexico. Disposal of the much larger amounts of civilian reactor waste (75,000 tons) is being studied at a site called Yucca Mountain, located in the desert a hundred miles northwest from Las Vegas, Nevada. It is hoped that the Yucca Mountain site may be ready to accept shipments shortly after the year 2013.


The spent fuel that composes most of the high level nuclear waste produced by nuclear power plants is currently stored in steel-lined concrete pools of water at 65 powerplant sites in more than 30 States. The critical problem driving the search for a permanent resting site for America's commercial nuclear spent fuel is that this storage space is running out.

In the 60s and 70s when most U. S. reactors were designed, it was believed that spent fuel would be stored only temporarily in at-reactor pools before being removed for reprocessing (now no longer an option). The pools were therefore not designed for permanent storage. Reracking, or rearranging, spent fuel assemblies within the pools has increased their capacity, however a number of nuclear utilities may be forced to shutdown if alternative storage is not found. Consequently, the search for a nuclear waste repository for commercial spent fuel has a direct impact on whether a significant percentage of the nation's energy production facilities remain in operation.

Three other long term arguments favor centralized geologic storage of nuclear waste:

  1. Geologic storage removes the high-level waste from 65 vulnerable sites around the nation (many near oceans, rivers and fault lines) and consolidates it in a sophisticated and dedicated engineered structure.
  2. There is no guarantee later generations will have the political will or monetary resources to store the waste in the future. It would be irresponsible to force our nuclear problems on future generations
  3. Security requirements at a central site will be diminished in comparison to funding the indefinite protection of 65 or more surface sites. The 1993 explosion at the Twin Towers in New York, and the destruction of the Towers on 9/11/2001 suggests on-site storage is vulnerable to terrorist attack.

The opposition to Yucca Mountain argues that on-site storage of nuclear waste for fifty or a hundred years at 65 sites in above-ground canisters, even given the instability of political, institutional and natural events, is preferable to Yucca Mountain. While this is not entirely out of the realm of possibility, these objections seem driven by something other than safety concerns over Yucca Mountain.


If America's nuclear energy production capacity is to remain viable, the nuclear waste disposal problem must be resolved. The study and building of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository thus has a huge impact on America's energy future. There are a number of reasons why nuclear energy is an attractive element in our national energy policy:

1) ENERGY INDEPENDENCE: Reserves of uranium in the U.S. makes this fuel independent of foreign suppliers. The continuing Iraq war and potential hostilities with Iran and even Venezuela are costly battles for foreign oil reserves.

2) ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION: Hydrocarbon fuels are environmental polluters. Nuclear power plants do not pollute the atmosphere. They also emit less radioactivity than many coal-fired plants.

3) RESOURCE ABUNDANCE: U.S. hydrocarbon reserves are limited. Hydro power is essentially used up. Solar is promising but is geographically limited in application, resource intensive and expensive. Fusion is many years away and may never be economically competitive. Uranium reserves are in contrast abundant.

4) ECONOMIC COMPETITIVENESS: Global markets are energy hungry. Access to nuclear energy thus becomes an important advantage in the worldwide economic foot race. China and India are well on their way to development.

5) THIRD WORLD EMPOWERMENT: Access to clean and inexpensive nuclear energy promises to speed economic development in the Third World and promote environmental responsibility. Burning wood in mud hearths is neither conducive to economic growth nor does it protect the environment. American nuclear technology is thus critical to ensuring Third World utilization of nuclear power is safe and that nuclear waste disposal is done in a thoughtful way worldwide.

Of the available energy sources, only solar energy and nuclear energy stand out as being close to meeting the entire range of requirements for a sound energy policy, providing unlimited reserves and relatively benign impact on the environment. Unfortuntely, little of the massive investment in alternative energies has yet to bear fruit in commercial ventures. The windmills of Altamount Pass in California stand idle. The Solar One and Solar Two solar collectors near Barstow California did not produce quantum breakthroughs.

Alternatives beyond solar are few. For example, the synfuels program during the Carter administration was an extremely expensive waste of taxpayer money that mercifully ended. The Reagan, Bush, Clinton and Bush administrations that followed have been equally lacking in alternative fuel success stories and future presidencies need to be wary of venturing down alternative energy "investment" paths which are actually counterproductive to environmental goals.

A case in point was the attempt by senator Harry Reid and former senator Richard Bryan to turn the Nevada Test Site into a huge hydrogen-solar energy farm. Besides being environmentally disruptive (similar to paving the Test Site with concrete) and costly (perhaps trillions of dollars say its proponents), the hydrogen project's main purpose seemed to be a social welfare make-work project to keep the senators' Nevada constituents happy.

If we wish to keep national energy policy from degenerating into a special interest boondoggle, a philosophy of energy technology development needs to be developed that balances the competing interests of the environment, the economy and social welfare. Yucca Mountain and nuclear energy appear to be irreplaceable within this grand energy strategy.


Opposition to Yucca Mountain is often couched as a state's rights issue pitting Nevadans against the federal government over the use of land within the state. If state's rights were the only issue involved, the political whirlwind surrounding the study of the nuclear waste repository would have been resolved long ago. Instead, Yucca Mountain has been used both by Nevada's political establishment and by activist environmental and social justice groups to promote much more ambitious agendas.

Among Nevada's political elite, Yucca Mountain has long been a potent vote generator and has served to polarize the community into two lopsided fragments. Those who oppose Yucca Mountain have maintained a sizeable majority over those who favor studying the site. A rigid anti-Yucca Mountain orthodoxy has thus served as a political bludgeon to maintain political fault lines within the state.

Myriad environmental factions have also opposed the development of the repository. The Safe Energy Communication Council, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, the Sierra Club, Public Citizens, Citizen Alert, American Peace Test, etc. are a short list of opponents from the Green movement. The fight against Yucca Mountain by environmentalists appears to be based on a complex agenda of anti-nuclear pacifism, social reform, religious conviction and land reform more than on the potential negative health effects of nuclear waste. Consequently, anti-nuclear fanaticism at Yucca Mountain has taken on the passion of a Holy War rather than the cool logic of scientific analysis. The question this poses is whether America can afford to fashion its energy policy on the basis of radical special-interest social ideology rather than the technical merits of the nuclear fuel cycle.


The election of Bill Clinton to the presidency in 1992 obviously caused a sea change in America's energy policy. Environmental concerns moved towards the center of energy policy, reflected in the views of vice-president Al Gore, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, EPA director Carolyn Brown, Secretary of Energy Hazel O'Leary, et. al. The following Bush administration rolled back some, but not all of the Clinton era stonewalling of energy development. Yet, nuclear energy would seem to fit well within a combined energy/environmental policy no matter the ideology of those in power. Relative to the pollution caused by hydrocarbon technology, nuclear energy is benign. Relative to solar technology, nuclear is compact, resource efficient and cost effective. Logically, the tradeoffs between environmental safety and cost efficiency are favorable to the nuclear industry. There is thus a strong argument that Yucca Mountain is in our national interest, isolating nuclear waste from the environment and allowing the continuation of nuclear power as an energy option.

The danger we face, however, is that our energy policy has come to be driven by special interests from the professional anti-nuclear environmental lobby who have tied themselves to political coat tails (the most obvious being Al Gore). The roots of energy policy driven by political expediency was during the Carter administration when Ralph Nader's Congress Watch and other environmental factions were responsible for the synfuels program (synthetic fuels from oil shale) and solar energy tax credits, two programs which were noted failures. The Safe Energy Communication Council, perhaps the premier anti-nuclear coalition, is staffed largely with holdovers from this earlier movement and is influential even now.

Progressive energy policy may well be governed neither by cost efficiency nor environmental concerns, but by social considerations that are part of a larger Green political movement. For example, calls for on-site rather than geologic storage of nuclear waste made by Nevada's Nuclear Waste Project Office and Nevada's politicians, seem derived in part from equity theory rather than from engineering, environmental or economic concerns. Special attention to the way the study of Yucca Mountain is conducted, and to the political motivations and interests of those on both sides of the issue, is therefore critical.


The question of whether Yucca Mountain is the appropriate nuclear waste disposal technology to pursue cannot be resolved in these short few pages; that is why a multiple year and multi-billion dollar study is being conducted. What can be resolved is whether the study of Yucca Mountain is being conducted wisely and whether the political motives of those involved are based on the needs of Nevadans and Americans, or whether ulterior motives drive the debate. In any event, a decision must soon be made between two extreme futures:

  1. If Yucca Mountain is as flawed and unsalvageable technology as its opponents claim, we must prepare to shut down 21% of our nation's electrical capacity within the next thirty years. This in turn would require a massive investment (perhaps trillions of dollars) to convert the shortfall into solar capacity, or require a substantial increase in hydrocarbon imports, or result in economic downsizing. Finally, it means restarting the entire multi-billion dollar repository siting process fifty years from now to dispose of already generated waste without guarantee that such efforts will be successful or that present expertise can be maintained during the delay.
  2. Alternatively, if Yucca Mountain is found tenable (or at least salvageable), then an opportunity exists to improve America's energy independence and economic vitality through a rebirth of nuclear energy. New, higher efficiency and less polluting reactors could be brought on line and existing marginal nuclear facilities could be retired early. Solar and other alternative energies could still be developed, which would compete in the market place both on the basis of cost and environmental safety.

The choices are stark. America and the world face a severe contraction of energy options if our decision on Yucca Mountain is negative. Making such a choice on the basis of special interest politics rather than after a sober analysis of risks and benefits promises multiple decades of disruption of our energy supplies.