The Duluth News Tribune’s Jan. 5, 2012, editorial (re-published July 10, 2014) blithely considered the grave issue of high-level radioactive waste storage, asking with its headline, “Nuclear waste here? Actually, why not?”
For answers, editors suggested we listen to scientists. This was sound advice, but it raised a question: Which scientists? It was scientific analysis that led to the cancellation of the Yucca Mountain, Nev., dump site plan — that and the staggering 2008 cost estimate of $90 billion, which was up from $58 billion in 2001, according to the New York Times. Yucca Mountain was chosen by Congress in 1987 and was vigorously pursued to the tune of $9 billion for decades. But then a long string of scientific show stoppers proved the site unsuitable, and the Obama White House and Energy Department gave it the ax.
A look at the record shows that most of the frightening risks and daunting technical problems that disqualified Yucca Mountain apply to this region’s stable but water-logged granite bedrock.
For example, in August 1999, proof that the inside of Yucca Mountain occasionally flooded came in the form of zircon crystals found deep inside. “Crystals do not form without complete immersion in water,” said Jerry Szymanski, formerly the Energy Department’s top geologist at Yucca. Szymanski said, “That would mean hot underground water has invaded the mountain and might again in the time when radioactive waste would still be extremely dangerous. The results would be catastrophic.”
In 1997, Energy Department scientists announced that rain water had seeped 800 feet from the top of Yucca Mountain and down into the repository in only 40 years. Government scientists said earlier it would take hundreds or thousands of years to reach the caverns, according to a 2007 New York Times report.
In 1995, government physicists at Los Alamos National Laboratory dropped a bomb on the Yucca plan, charging that wastes buried there might erupt in a radioactive explosion and scatter deadly fallout to the winds or into groundwater or both, as the Washington Post reported in 1998. Drs. Charles Bowman and Francesco Venneri found that catastrophic dangers would arise thousands of years from now — after steel waste casks dissolved and plutonium began to disperse into surrounding rock.
In 2001, after 14 years of work, the General Accounting Office reported that Bechtell, the Yucca project’s managing contractor, admitted there were 293 unresolved technical problems with geology and with waste cask design that would require years of study.
In 1990, in the Milwaukee Journal, the National Research Council said the Yucca Mountain plan was “bound to fail” because it demanded a level of safety that science could not guarantee. This condemnation didn’t even mention the risks of moving highly radioactive material around the country on barges, trains and trucks, passing through 40 states and 100 major cities for 25 years. The specter of a transport accident near the Great Lakes or anywhere has been justly dubbed “Mobile Chernobyl.”
Replace the earthquake problems at Yucca Mountain with the dauntingly vast amounts of water here — not the least of which is the world’s largest body of fresh water, Lake Superior — and consideration of the region for the storage of nuclear waste seems laughable. Federal guidelines say the presence of fast-flowing water disqualifies any potential radioactive waste site.
It was telling that “water” did not appear anywhere in the News Tribune’s editorial. Keeping water away from radioactive waste is the principle object of any long-term storage because water corrodes waste canisters and could carry radiation into the surrounding ecosphere and food chain. Current law requires any repository prevent such dispersal for 1 million years.
The Land of 10,000 Lakes at the head of the Great Lakes is far less suitable for waste storage than even a desert mountain.
John LaForge, a native of Duluth, has worked on the staff of the nuclear watchdog group Nukewatch, based near Luck, Wis., since 1992. This commentary was originally used in the Duluth News Tribune, Jan. 25, 2012.