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September 16, 2014

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Time to move past Yucca

The Obama administration has valid scientific and technical grounds for finding Yucca Mountain unworkable as a repository for spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste.

As Nevadans have been saying for decades, the fact is that Yucca Mountain is an unsafe and unsuitable location for a facility that must isolate extremely dangerous and long-lived waste for hundreds of thousands of years.

This may be old news in Nevada. But this fact seems to be lost on my counterparts in the states of South Carolina and Washington, who are suing the federal government in a last-ditch attempt to revive the ill-fated nuclear waste repository previously planned for the Yucca Mountain site, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

The site is geologically active, with numerous earthquake faults and evidence of geologically recent volcanic activity. Even the U.S. Energy Department has acknowledged that the geology at Yucca contributes almost nothing to waste isolation and protection. Therefore, the Energy Department had proposed to rely almost exclusively on “man-made barriers.” The rock at Yucca Mountain is so porous and fractured, with pathways that permit highly corrosive groundwater to move rapidly through it to the aquifer below, that the Energy Department had to engineer ever-more exotic “fixes” in attempts to compensate for the site’s fundamental inadequacies.

The license application submitted to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission by the Energy Department relies almost exclusively on “magic metal” waste disposal containers that must remain intact for more than a half-million years. The containers would then be placed in miles of tunnels lined with thousands of titanium drip shields to prevent water and other liquids from eroding the waste packages.

Ironically, in the license application it is now withdrawing “with prejudice,” the Energy Department did not plan to even install the drip shields for 100 years or more after the waste would have been put into the mountain. That’s if the drip shields could have been installed at all given the yet-to-be-invented robotics required to handle them.

Such futuristic measures were needed because of the high radiation and high heat environment, given the expected degradation of the underground tunnels over that time period, and given the huge percentage of the world’s titanium supply that would be required at an extreme cost to the country (over $10 billion and growing).

The fact that Yucca Mountain is a flawed site has been known for decades. Congress picked the Nevada site in 1987 not because it was the best site or even a suitable one; it was chosen solely for political reasons in spite of known defects.

If those decrying the decision to terminate the Yucca project today were as vocal in insisting that science, not politics, be the deciding factor in 1987, the nation might well have a functioning repository today, albeit not at Yucca Mountain.

The decision by the current administration to abandon the failed repository program and establish the Blue Ribbon Commission for America’s Nuclear Future to evaluate current and new technology and forward-looking alternatives for managing spent fuel and high-level waste is not only scientifically sound, but it also represents the best chance for finally solving the waste problem in a manner that is in the best interests of the nation and the nuclear industry.

The blue-ribbon commission will re-evaluate the use of future nonproliferating reprocessing technologies to reuse spent fuel rather than dispose of it as waste.

The smartest, safest and most economical thing to do is leave the waste where it is (in perfectly safe, dry storage facilities) and invest in technologies that will reduce waste volumes and reuse the spent fuel while the nation scientifically looks for safe, workable and fair solutions to the nuclear waste problem.

Yucca Mountain would not solve any problems for the country or nuclear power. It would only defer them at a cost to the health and safety of Nevadans. Now, it’s time to focus on the science.

Nevadans have been saying as much for years. Now that the Energy Department is finally agreeing with us, the time has come to bury the idea of a nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain once and for all.

Catherine Cortez Masto is attorney general of Nevada.

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