Nuclear Waste Program

Nuclear waste is the resultant material of nuclear fuel after it has been processed in a nuclear reactor. Nuclear fuel consists of solid pellets of enriched uranium, which are sealed in tubes and bundled together to form assemblies, which are then loaded in the reactor (Yucca Mountain and Nuclear Waste 2005). Before energy is produced, the fuel is initially Uranium or Thorium, steel, and oxygen. After energy has been produced, these elements’ atoms split into numerous isotopes of transition metals producing a highly radioactive resultant material.

This highly radioactive material is produced by commercial nuclear power plants and defense facilities. At commercial nuclear plants reactors generate this waste as a result of the electricity production process. On the other hand, nuclear weapon facilities generate this material through the process of manufacturing weapons-grade fissile substances. The resultant waste is ‘spent fuel’, which is the nuclear waste comprising of irradiated solid material and liquid waste. This spent fuel is the main form of nuclear waste in US, radioactivity of which remains high for many years (Yucca Mountain and Nuclear Waste 2005).

As it was described above, nuclear fuel assemblies are loaded in nuclear reactors, where fission reactions occur. These reactions produce large amounts of heat that is harnessed to generate electricity. Since the fuel loaded in the reactor can only be used for a limited period of time, it is occasionally being removed and replaced by fresh assemblies of fuel. The removed fuel is extremely hot and highly radioactive. It is placed in pools to facilitate cooling and some radioactivity decay. Pools, however, have limited spaces. Therefore, when they get full, there is a need to either shut down the reactor or store some of the older waste material. Here, the material is placed in dry casks, which are concrete steel containers filled with inert gas (Yucca Mountain and Nuclear Waste 2005). For the purposes of storing this highly radioactive waste US proposes Yucca Mountain, Nevada, as the repository site under Nuclear Waste Program.

Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Program

Yucca Mountain is located in Nevada, approximately 85 miles from the north-west side of Las Vegas. This mountain is considered to be the sole site where nuclear waste in US will be stored. This decision was made after the Congress pointed it out back in 1987 and stopped further considerations of other sites. This proposed repository site is estimated to hold 70,000 metric tons of nuclear waste, in which 63,000 metric tons will be from commercial nuclear plants and 7,000 metric tons from weapon plants. Yucca Mountain repository storage capacity is restricted by legal and physical concerns. It cannot, therefore, accommodate all of the nuclear waste that will be produced by all the licensed commercial reactors. In addition, irradiated fuel should decay in an onsite cooling pool for a minimum of five years prior to transportation. This indicates that nuclear waste of five years, which translates into approximately 150 metric tons as indicated in Yucca Mountain and Nuclear Waste Program (2005), will always be left in the operational reactors despite opening of the site. Considering this facts and the amount of already produced nuclear waste, Yucca Mountain is neither capable of storing all highly reactive nuclear waste in a single place nor will it eradicate the risk that is posed to people across the nation.

According to Holt (2009) the decision by Congress to focus on Yucca Mountain was greatly controversial and presently is accompanied by harsh criticism from Nevada State in particular. Opponents of Yucca Mountain disagree with the statement of Department of Energy (DOE) that the site is appropriate for nuclear waste disposal on long term basis. They, therefore, propose a radical change in the entire program. However, the proposed repository site has persistently maintained adequate support from the Congress. As indicated by Garvey (2009), in accordance with Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA) characterization framework, Yucca Mountain was inspected and evaluated extensively to determine whether the site complies with DOE’s suitability guidelines and Environmental Protection Agency’s public health, safety, and environment requirements. After the inspection, the Energy Secretary recommended approval of Yucca Mountain for repository development. With this in mind the Congress rejected the ‘State veto’ of Nevada explicitly. It also did not stop program’s funding and has ignored a number of legislative proposals that were meant to disrupt the program or look for an alternative site.

Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Project Timeline

According to the plans of DOE, in the beginning of year 2010 nuclear waste was to be accepted at Yucca Mountain repository site and will continue to be deposited for not less than 24 years. The final deposition activities will end after 2035. However, DOE must at first seek license from Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for it to construct and run the waste repository. NWPA provides that application of license must be filed within 90 days of the Congressional action. However, there has been delay because DOE and NRC have failed to arrive on a decision regarding the details about the design of the facility among other issues (Yucca Mountain and Nuclear Waste 2005).

Current Projections of the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Program

The latest schedule of DOE regarding shipments of nuclear waste and anticipated costs of the current program lays a basis for evaluating alternatives for Yucca Mountain. It is clear that opening the repository at least 22 years after 1998 deadline given by NWPA as well as removal of waste from current storage sites require numerous decades. This means that fundamental changes in this waste program will take even longer. It still remains unclear whether DOE will keep up with its present schedule, or whether repository will obtain NRC’s license under the present program. In addition, policy makers may come to a conclusion that significant advantages can be achieved if the program is changed now. These benefits in their turn can compensate for drawbacks associated with delays of development of a permanent repository as well as for the high costs associated with the interim storage.

Under the current DOE’s schedule approximately 400 metric tons of nuclear fuel waste will be shipped from reactor pools to Yucca Mountain by 2020. This amount will increase to 600 metric tons by 2021, 1,200 metric tons in 2022, 2,000 metric tons in 2023, and reach the anticipated maximum of 3,000 metric tons by 2024. Since the entire commercial reactor sector in US produces approximately 2,000 metric tons of nuclear waste annually, this shipment schedule will not start reducing the accumulation of nuclear waste stored at the operational reactors’ sites up until 2024. DOE further estimates that the quantity of commercial nuclear waste that was stored in dry casks and under water pools was 57,700 metric tons in 2007. If this amount of waste continues to grow at the rate of 2,000 metric tons annually, then storages would attain 81,000 metric tons even before transportation begins at 2020. The amount of waste will further rise to almost 85,000 metric tons by 2023, a period in which Yucca Mountain will exceed discharges of reactors by 1000 metric tons annually. These projections show that shipment of nuclear waste from previous and current nuclear plants in US will increase up to 109,300 metric tons in the year 2066. This amount will be supplemented by 12,800 metric tons from defense-related nuclear waste, increasing the amount at Yucca Mountain by 2066 to 122,100 metric tons (Holt 2009).

Consequences and Long-Term Risks of Shifting the Yucca Mountain Program

Halting or delaying the program will cause the nuclear waste to remain in on-site storages longer than it is anticipated. In addition, a long-term nuclear waste isolation from the environment will be needed. In future, the level of security and maintenance of storage facilities in the sites will fall below the appropriate level. Therefore, the risks associated with nuclear waste will potentially increase reaching substantial radioactivity level, which will eventually lead to catastrophic effects on human health.

The Future of Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Program

According to Garvey (2012), the results of the current dispute regarding attempted Yucca Mountain program termination remain unclear. There is a control change in the House of Representatives that will have considerable impact on the final fate of this program. Strong opposition to abandoning the program has been voiced by several Republicans. The attempt of the administration to terminate the project has been opposed by several committees. DOE secretary has further supported his interests in reviving the program arguing that the country has already invested billions of dollars in a safest possible facility. Consequently, this dispute will unfold both legally in respect to D.C. Circuit and NRC as well as politically taking the form of appropriations diversity, oversight and investigations within House of Representatives.

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