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It’s Baaaaaaack!!!

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What does Republican control of both houses of Congress mean? Many things of course. But one of them might be yet another push to open the Yucca Mountain nuclear storage facility in Nevada. And really, what could go wrong?

The key design element in question is something the Energy Department calls a “drip shield.” This is a kind of massive, corrosion-resistant titanium alloy mailbox that is supposed to sit over each of the thousands of waste canisters in Yucca Mountain’s underground tunnels. In NRC’s definition, it is designed “to prevent seepage water from directly dripping onto the waste package outer surface.”

The name drip shield itself is a giveaway that there is a water problem at Yucca Mountain. There is indeed a lot more water, and it is flowing faster, than the Energy Department imagined when it picked the site, which is why it added the drip shield to the original design. Without the titanium shields, dripping water would corrode the waste canisters placed in the repository and release radioactive waste, and the moving underground water would carry it to the nearby environment. Using the corrosion data in the Energy Department’s license application, one can calculate that this corrosion would take not the “million years” cited by Mr. Shimkus, but about 1,000 years.

Although the Energy Department has included the drip shields as part of the repository design, and NRC has accepted them for license-review purposes, the Energy Department doesn’t actually plan to install the shields until at least 100 years after the waste goes in. Presumably, this delay is based on financial considerations; installing the shields early in the project would add hugely to the repository’s cost and thus threaten its funding prospects in Congress. If you look more closely into the situation, you can’t escape the conclusion that it is highly implausible that the drip shields will ever be installed. In fact, as a practical matter, it may not even be physically possible to install them.

A 100 year delay? Well, what harm is there in that? Surely on top of everything else, the geopolitical situation will be precisely as stable as today, if not more so! Still…

According to Energy Department’s plan, after the radioactive waste canisters are placed in the repository tunnels, the site would receive minimal attention for many decades. After a hundred years or so, before the repository was permanently closed, the Energy Department would install the protective drip shields. So it says. Because of the radioactive underground environment, it would take highly specialized robotic equipment to install the shields with the required precision. None of this equipment has been designed, or even thought through.

Realistically, a century into the project, the underground tunnels would have deteriorated considerably and collapsed in part. Dust would sharply limit visibility. The tunnels would have to be cleared of rubble for a remotely operated underground rail system to transport robotic equipment and the five-ton drip shields to the waste canisters. The shields would then have to be installed end-to-end, so as to form a continuous metal cover inside the tunnels, obviously a delicate, complex, and extremely expensive operation. Is it reasonable to believe that after 100 years, with the nuclear waste in the repository long out of the public mind, that Congress would appropriate enormous sums of money for the Energy Department to go back into the tunnels to install the shields? Can we really rely on an agency that hasn’t yet cleaned up a nationwide radioactive mess that dates from World War II to keep a promise that it will do something a century into the future? Will there even be an Energy Department in 100 years?

This is one of many reasons why there is no room for nuclear energy in our future. As Alan Weisman discusses, building nuclear power plants assumes a forever of continued electrical production because if that power goes out long enough for the backup generators to run out, every single nuclear power plant in the world turns into a situation worse than Chernobyl. Then there is the storage issue that the U.S. certainly has never dealt with, as we see with the Yucca Mountain problems. Nuclear power is a bad idea.

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