What to Do With Nuclear Waste? The nuclear power industry wants a $50 billion safety net for new plants, but the old question of dealing with nuclear waste remains a problem. Transporting and storing it is one challange. Another is how to create a warning sign people can understand in 10,000 years.
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What to Do With Nuclear Waste?

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What to Do With Nuclear Waste?

What to Do With Nuclear Waste?

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In our weeklong series on nuclear power, you knew we'd get to it. What to do with a radioactive nuclear waste, a left-over gift from nuclear power that just keeps on giving and giving and giving for thousands of years?

American scientists have studied the problem. They considered it burying it in the ocean. It's been done in the past, but the U.S. prohibited from doing so until 2018. Some studied putting it on a remote island. Finland is considering this. There was the discussion about launching it into space, an option deemed too expensive. Putting under the polar ice cap - global warming issues there. So the best choice, which was determined - underground disposal. But where?

Since 1982, when Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, the Department of Energy has been in charged of finding a place for this stuff. They settled on Yucca Mountain in the Mojave Desert in Southern Nevada. The plan: dig tunnels deep into the rocks about a thousand feet below the surface and stuff them with up to 135,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste. Yum.

In fact, this week, the DOE met with certain application requirements by submitting three and a half million documents in the first steps towards the big project. George Lobsenz is the editor of Energy Daily.

Hi, George.

Mr. GEORGE LOBSENZ (Editor, Energy Daily): Hello.

STEWART: First of all, can I get a couple of basics from you? Where is all that nuclear waste that could go in Yucca Mountain? Where is it now, and how is it contained?

Mr. LOBSENZ: Well, it's being stored at all the nuclear plants that operate around country. So it's basically sitting in a big kind of cooling tub of water right next to operating reactors, and these are, of course, sprinkled all around the country, generally next to large bodies of water like the Chesapeake Bay, the ocean, rivers, et cetera.

STEWART: All right. So we all know that we're exposed to radiation every day from nature, from man-made sources like computers and x-rays, but the levels of radiation we're talking about from nuclear waste, obviously, is dangerous. But for how long is it dangerous, talking about the time span, the life of nuclear waste?

Mr. LOBSENZ: Well, it's very, you know, it's got very long-live radio nuclides in there - plutonium and many others that last for tens of thousands of years or even millions of years, where they do decay in radioactivity but, you know, they will remain dangerous for, you know, easily thousands - tens of thousands of years.

STEWART: All right, so let's get to Yucca Mountain. How did all these scientists decide on Yucca Mountain? What is it about this place that made it seem like the ideal place to dump nuclear waste?

Mr. LOBSENZ: Well, you know, it's like everything - all the other environmental issues in this country. It's a combination of science and politics and, basically, when they passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act back in 1982, DOE, the Energy Department went out and looked for basically underground formations that were considered likely to be able to hold in contaminants, prevent leakage into the ground water. They came up with about 10 sites, and after that, they narrowed it down to three sites was - one which was Yucca Mountain, another one in Texas, one in Washington, and that's where the politics entered in.

At that point, Congress came in and because a variety of political reasons, mainly that nobody really wanted it, and Nevada had a very weak Congressional delegation and the small one, that the decision was made by Congress to focus only on Yucca Mountain. And that's really how the decision was made.

STEWART: All right. If my research is right, the nearest families are about 14 miles away in Amagosa Valley. Now, for the opponents in this, you talked about the politics of this, is this the case of NIMBY, Not In My Backyard, or are real problems with Yucca Mountain which aren't being addressed?

Mr. LOBSENZ: Well, I think there certainly is a NIMBY there, NIMBY quality. I mean, I don't think there's any state or any country that really wants a nuclear waste dump. So I think that's part of it but, you know, then there's -there are safety issues. But depending on who you talk to, there are really questions about at least the relative risks in terms of storing waste at Yucca Mountain as compared to, for example, where it is right now.

STEWART: Are there issues of the stability of the mountain, the surrounding areas, the water supply?

Mr. LOBSENZ: Well, again, you know, they're looking at this on a scale - a time scale that we were talking about of tens of thousands of years, so they're looking at, you know, are there going to be earthquakes, are there going to be even volcanoes, volcanic activity? And what's going to happen long term to the geological formation where the waste is going to be placed? So there's a lot of - this is why it's taken the Energy Department so long to get around to moving on this, is they've been conducting exhaustive studies to look at all these issues over timescales of tens of thousands of years.

MIKE PESCA: To your knowledge, has the government ever looked at anything with that kind of long-time horizon? It doesn't seem, you know, they look to the next election.

Mr. LOBSENZ: Well, you know, this has been commented on. I mean, it's a little comical. I mean, if you look at the environmental regulation that's being drawn up for this facility, it talks about containing waste or assuring the containing a waste for a million years. Which, I mean, come on, how long have people been on the planet, or, you know, how long has there been civilization? It's been - it's a little, I mean, in reporting on this story, it's a little ridiculous when you think about it that we're - that we all going to think that we're capable of making determinations of what's going to happen over a million years.

STEWART: Should everything go smoothly and this all happens, when will Yucca Mountain get its first dump truck? I know it's not coming out of a dump truck, but you know what I'm saying, is that…

PESCA: My El Camino.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: …it's first deposit of nuclear waste.

Mr. LOBSENZ: Well, the projection now is that they hope to open it by, say, 2017 or 2018. If you talk to people in the know, they think that even that is somewhat optimistic, and it might be later than that.

STEWART: George Lobsenz, editor of Energy Daily. Thank you so much for walking us through that.

Mr. LOBSENZ: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

PESCA: As George just referenced, when you're talking about 10,000 years, lots of issues tend to pop up. One of the things is that you have to put signs around this site - Yucca Mountain - to warn future humans - let's hope they're humans - to stay away. But what should the signs be made out of? What sort of language or universal and timeless signs should they contain? Will people speak in 10,000 years? Will the charade sign for sounds like even exist?

STEWART: I know. Imagine if there were just giant signs around the Bermuda Triangle at one point saying, don't fly over this. Can you imagine? There was an art exhibit several years ago that addressed this problem, and one person suggested swastikas, that, that is a symbol that will exist for a long time as this is dangerous.

PESCA: Mm. I don't know about that…

STEWART: You know what I think?

PESCA: …because that predates the Nazis.

STEWART: You know what I think?

PESCA: Yeah.

STEWART: I think the color red, because in nature…


STEWART: …red berries are often poisonous, and there's just something about the color red that you know to stay away. So just - let's just paint everything red.

PESCA: Since cockroaches survive everything, I think you train the cockroaches to form a pattern - the skull and cross bones - and they pass it on to future generations. That could happen.

STEWART: Or they just get into formations that say don't go here.

PESCA: Yeah.

STEWART: They become like a drill team.

PESCA: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. With little flags…

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: That would be good.

PESCA: …marching. This cockroach application could go way - well past Yucca Mountain.

STEWART: Okay. That's what Mike and I are thinking about. We'd like to know what you think about what kind of signage could be used outside of nuclear dumpsites that would last millions and millions of years. Go to our blog, npr.org/bryantpark. Let us know what you think.

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