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Nuclear Waste

The hazards of nuclear power do not end with the operation of the power plants.  Instead, the concerns for the environment and human safety remain once nuclear waste is placed into storage.  An unavoidable aspect of electricity generation through nuclear power is the production of radioactive waste that has be stored in order to prevent it from contaminating the surrounding land or water systems.  Each year the One hundred and three operating commercial reactors in the United States generate over 2,000 tons of highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel.[1]  To exacerbate the problem the United States has yet to finalize or institute a plan for the end storage of this massive amount of waste produced every year.  As of 2005 there was approximately 40,000 tons of spent fuel waiting in temporary storage containers for an end plan.[2]  Currently nuclear waste is stored in one of two ways.  The majority of U.S. plants utilize fuel pools to store their nuclear waste.  These pools must be at least twenty feet deep and are constructed from concrete and steel linings.  Spent nuclear fuel is placed in the pools and covered in water which acts as a shield from the radioactive waste.  Seventeen nuclear plants in the United States have been approved to use above-ground dry storage casks.[3]  In this method the spent fuel is surrounded and cooled by an inert gas.  The dry cask system requires less observation and is overall a much simpler system.  There is no need for the large amounts of mechanical systems, pumps, and instruments necessary for the fuel pools.  The one drawback of dry cask systems over fuel pools is that the spent fuel cannot be immediately placed in the casks and must instead sit in pools for a few years before the spent fuel is cool enough to be placed in the casks.  Both the fuel pool and dry cask systems were meant only for temporary storage in lieu of an immediate method for permanent storage but as fuel piles up more and more, nuclear plants are having to modify their fuels storage systems to accommodate increased amounts of spent fuel.  And as the leak at the Indian Point nuclear facility revealed, contamination of the surrounding environment from stored nuclear waste is a very real possibility.  Nuclear waste is stored in temporary facilities scattered across 39 different states and perhaps the most worrisome measure is that 161 million Americans live within 75 miles of one or more of these storage sites.[4]

            Currently the common agreement is that a long term geologic depository must be developed for end storage of spent fuel but even this is fraught with its own problems and hazards.  The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 requires that nuclear waste be stored in a deep geologic depository and designated Yucca Mountain as the only candidate site.[5]  However since the declaration that Nevada would house the nation’s nuclear waste many apparent roadblocks have appeared.  Perhaps most important is the state of Nevada’s refusal to agree to the Yucca Mountain plan.  The state is quite adamantly opposed to Yucca Mountain being used as the final and sole repository for nuclear waste but the repository will be on federally owned land leaving the state little say.  Yucca Mountain is 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas and will eventually house 70,000 tons of radioactive waste.  If the project continues on project, as the government seems intent on ensuring the facility will open for nuclear waste shipments in the year 2010 and will house the material for the next 10,000 years which is how long it will take the radioactive waste to deteriorate to a safe level.[6]

            In 1999, in reaction to new studies that suggested that Yucca Mountain might not be the ideal site for a repository, the Environmental Protection Agency redrew the zone of compliance for environmental laws around Yucca Mountain.  In this area less stringent standards will have to be met and the zone was specifically made to encompass an area eleven miles in the direction that radioactivity is expected to leak.[7]  As a result of this redrawing, the EPA ensured that the Yucca Mountain Facility will receive a fuel storage license at the cost of the health of future generations.  Nevada has continued its objections to the placement of the nuclear waste repository including a suit filed against the Environmental Protect Agency claiming that it had issued inadequate standards for Yucca Mountain.  In 2004 a federal appeals court ruled against the EPA requiring the agency to rewrite stricter standards for the area.[8]

            Another concern connected to radioactive waste storage is the transportation of the waste from its current placement to Yucca Mountain.  Beginning in 2010 shipments of nuclear waste will continue for the next 38 years.  In those 38 years a shipment will be required every 4 hours, 24 hours a day, and 365 days a year with each shipment containing enough radioactive material to construct a deadly dirty bomb.[9]  One third of the shipments will travel through the metropolitan Chicago area.[10]  The shipments will go through metropolitan areas such as New York City, Chicago, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Phoenix, Hartford, Des Moines, Omaha, Sacramento, Baltimore, Cleveland, Salt Lake City, and Washington, DC.  Transportation experts have estimated that in the course of 38 years there will be 130 truck accidents and 440 rail accidents during the transportation of nuclear waste.[11]  In addition to all of these hazards and environmental justice violations that Yucca Mountain has made and will continue to make is the simple fact that the United States currently has enough nuclear waste to fill Yucca Mountain to capacity.  As long as nuclear power plants are allowed to continue operating there will be an excess of nuclear waste posing a grave risk to millions of Americans.

External Links:

CBS Coverage of Yucca Mountain
Transportation Routes
NRC: Waste Disposal
Dangers of Transportation
Citizen Group Against Yucca Mountain

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[1] “Nuclear Waste Disposal.”  Accessed April 3, 2006 at http://www.nei.org/index.asp?catnum=2&catid=62

[2] Ibid

[3] “Storage of Spent Nuclear Fuel.”  Accessed April 3, 2006 at http://www.nrc.gov/waste/spent-fuel-storage.html

[4]Yucca Mountain.”  Accessed April 3, 2006 at http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2003/10/23/60minutes/main579696.shtml

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid

[7] Cochran, Thomas, Christopher Paine, Geoffrey Fettus, Robert Norris, Matthew McKinzie.  “Commercial Nuclear Power.”  Natural Resources Defense Council.  Issue Paper October 2005.

[8] Ibid

[9] “Deadly Nuclear Waste Transport.”  Accessed April 3, 2006 at http://www.sierraclub.org/nuclearwaste/yucca_factsheet.asp

[10]Yucca Mountain.”  Accessed April 3, 2006 at http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2003/10/23/60minutes/main579696.shtml

[11]  “Deadly Nuclear Waste Transport.”  Accessed April 3, 2006 at http://www.sierraclub.org/nuclearwaste/yucca_factsheet.asp


spent fuel pool

A spent fuel pool used to store nuclear waste. [12]
dry cask
A dry cask storage system.  [13]

yucca photo
A photo of Yucca Mountain [14]


yucca map
A map of Yucca Mountain's Location [15]




transport map
A map of the transport routes for nuclear waste headed towards Yucca Mountain. [16]

Last updated:  5/2/2006

 


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