Mountain of doubt

Will the country's only planned nuclear waste dump survive Obama?

  • Judith Lewis and Cindy Wehling

When Edward "Ward" Sproat moved into his new office at the U.S. Department of Energy in early 2006, the future of Yucca Mountain looked about as bleak as nuclear winter. The atomic waste storage project, which had never amounted to more than a five-mile-long tunnel through a mountain 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, had already been hammered by lawsuits and starved of funding. Now it was tainted by scandal and absurdity. A series of incriminating e-mails had revealed how some project scientists may have fudged data to meet deadlines; a federal judge had declared the Environmental Protection Agency's 10,000-year safety timeframe inadequate. If Yucca Mountain is to open, the ruling implied, the EPA must protect the area's creatures for as long as nuclear waste remains deadly — perhaps for as long as 1 million years. Even if, as sometimes happens in 1 million years, those creatures will have mutated to survive it.

A tall, genial diplomat with a full head of white hair, Sproat has spent two decades negotiating on behalf of the nuclear energy industry. He frequently goes before audiences, not all of them friendly, to explain the Energy Department's nuclear-waste strategy, which he does with an equanimity seldom seen in bureaucrats. While serving as vice president of PECO Energy before it merged into Illinois nuclear giant Exelon Energy, he brokered a deal to get the government to pay the utility for storing spent fuel at its reactor sites. And he knows from experience that without a solution to the waste problem, the much-touted nuclear power renaissance, with all its guaranteed plant construction loans and tax breaks promised in the 2005 energy bill, is doomed.

Sproat came into his job with a straightforward but Sisyphean task: To make the government's plan for nuclear waste look respectable again. The surest way to do that was to file a long-overdue license application with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. And on June 3, 2008 — five years past deadline, but 27 days before Sproat himself had pledged — the Energy Department filed a document more than 8,600 pages long with the commission's licensing board, requesting permission to begin construction of a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain.

Now, the commission has three, possibly four, years to decide whether to grant that license. If it does, whoever holds Sproat's job will submit a second application, asking regulators to approve the actual physical transfer of the waste — a half-century of spent fuel rods from civilian atomic power, plus some military waste — to the facility by train and truck. Its earliest opening date is 2020.

To many observers and proponents of the presumed rebirth of the nuclear power industry, Sproat's accomplishment is a magnificent coup. "He's been fantastic," says Per Peterson, a professor of nuclear engineering at the University of California at Berkeley. "He brought in a kind of pragmatism and competence, and he focused in on the most important thing: to get the license application completed and start the technical review.

"Ward Sproat," Peterson concludes, "is the best thing that's happened to Yucca Mountain in its entire history."

Throughout the summer and fall, while the nuclear industry was still kvelling over Sproat's achievement, another story was unfolding in Nevada, one that could nullify all of Sproat's hard work: Illinois Sen. Barack Obama was plotting to win the state in the presidential election. Key to his strategy was affirming beyond a doubt his opposition to the Yucca Mountain repository.

Anonymous says:
Jan 20, 2009 12:53 PM
Future generations will see Nevada senators Reid and Ensign as stubborn luddites who obstructed the only sensible scheme for overcoming the looming economic/energy crisis by rapid expansion of nuclear power in the USA. Yucca is essential for this.

Wind and solar are fine for small-quantity energy applications but costs three times more than nuclear energy per delivered kWhr. They can not support heavy industry and feed the vast fleets of future electric plug-in automobiles. Expensive energy storage systems (batteries. etc) are needed to store energy when the sun does not shine or the wind does not blow. Non-nuclear energy storage systems are approaching a maximum dictated by physics; one can not store any more electrons in a cubic centimeter - lithium has the higest achievable electron density. No wishful thinking can change that fact. Wind- and sand-storms are also big problems for large wind and solar farms. At best, wind and solar can only provide 15% of future energy needs.

Besides coal only uranium is practical and economic for generating electricity on a large scale. But coal should not be burnt if we want to avoid aggravation of global warming. Also coal must be preserved as a raw material for synthesizing organics (plastics, etc) when the oil fields are depleted. With long-proven reprocessing of nuclear fuel and fast breeder technology uranium can meet all global prime energy needs for more than 2000 years.

Without many more green nuclear power plants to provide "mother energy" for manufacturing synfuels and biofuels to replace petroleum fuels, Las Vegas will become a ghost town. Operation of the Yucca repository will be totally safe and provide many jobs. Anti-nuclear propaganda against its operation is based on unsubstantiated fabrications and junk science. Nevada's senators who seem to believe thet propaganda are severely mis-informed and should be ashamed to let personal politics prevail over sound engineering science.

Opposing a practical program to rescue the USA from future energy-deprivation and economic collapse coincides with Bin Laden's objective to destroy our civilization. There are some who may not care and want to live in caves again, but most of us prefer today's amenities and comforts which previous generations of America's settlers worked so hard to attain.

Jeff Eerkens, PhD
Adjunct research professor,
Nuclear Science & Eng'ng Institute,
U of Missouri - Columbia

Anonymous says:
Jan 23, 2009 06:03 AM
I read numerous articles about President Obama's apprehension and Senator Reid's (D-Nevada) outright objection to Yucca Mountain. I graduated Kansas State University (KSU) in 1994 with Bachelors in Nuclear Engineering but had to pursue the business track in life due to lack of jobs in the industry which I passionately believed in. Later I received my MBA in Marketing from University of Illinois at Chicago and now I am the Director of Marketing for an investment bank in Estonia. I am currently writing a book for the Estonian public on ideas that could help the country emerge out of the current economic crisis (Medical Tourism, Nuclear Power and the IT industry).

Yucca Mountain is excellent science based on simple rules of physics and shielding. However, the public perception is a marketing failure by the industry. An industry or solution is no good unless you can sell it to the intended customer. In this case, it is the voters of Nevada and Senator Reid.

The industry has always had an image problem. In my opinion it has difficulty connecting to the average American voter. To be blunt, the industry suffers from arrogance and has unreasonable expectations that people should just understand Yucca Mountain and the nuclear waste solutions. I remember during my studies more than 15 years ago, the top students and some professors were regarding the public as uneducated and then attributed this fact to the industry hardships. In their view, it was not our fault but the publics fault for not being smart enough to "get it" or it was the media's fault for painting nuclear power with Chernobyl or TMI.

It is understandable that engineering draws those who lack social skills and many engineers think that their knowledge compensates for lack of emotional intelligence. However, we are seeing the world does not work that way, the rest of the voting public is "kool" and one has to know how to navigate the political minefield whether it be in college or the game of life. Our Engineers need to be ambassadors; perhaps the young ones need to work with MTV, the film industry, Discovery Channel to sway public perception. The industry needs to invest heavily in public awareness and education. I fail to understand how the industry failed so badly in PR with a pro-nuclear power president for the past eight years? I used to have this professor (the late Dr. Herman Donnert) who would have failed me if he knew I was a democrat.

There needs to be new branch in Nuclear Engineering studies and in the industry called "Nuclear Energy Marketing" in which the students and industry professionals learn about and take part in public forums, politics and media to promote the benefits of power and solutions for waste management.

The industry is the future of America and its a cornerstone to both strategic and economic security, but we need to be able to sell it. We have to figure out the demographics of Nevada voters and demonstrate to them how Yucca Mountain will not only help the US but also line their pockets with cash. The academic and industry elite need to become likable people who can speak in simple language. If the oil industry sold themselves to Alaska, then why can't the Nuclear Industry sell itself to Nevada? Perhaps there can be a nuclear dividend payment similar to the oil dividend in Alaska.
Anonymous says:
Jan 24, 2009 04:26 PM
I don't fully agree with your perspective that nuclear energy is the future, but perhaps my reluctance proves your point. In my field (plant conservation) it's apparent and somewhat discouraging how much easier it is to drum up support for endangered fauna than for endangered flora, and this bias becomes manifest in the numbers of federally protected species. It all has to do with the public's ability to relate to something less familiar, and that effort needs expanding on many fronts.
Anonymous says:
Jan 26, 2009 12:57 AM
I wrote the comment about Nuclear Energy and Salesmanship:

Alexander Grover
Director of Marketing
Trigon Capital

Kansas State University BS Nuclear Engineering 1994
University of Illinois MBA/Marketing 2005
Anonymous says:
Jan 24, 2009 04:13 PM
There are many assumptions and few considerations in the above comment. Clearly Mr. Eerkens believes with religious fervor in the necessity of pursuing the nuclear option in order to maintain the current quality of life. That this quality of life is something we must fix at any cost is just one such assumption.

I'm among those who appreciate warm toes (at least in winter) and cooked food and a laptop on which to compose my opinions. And I don't doubt that some of the facts Jeff quotes are at least liberally grounded in science. But he also leaves a few important things out, namely:

"Wind and solar are fine for small-quantity energy applications but costs three times more than nuclear energy per delivered kWhr."

There is a fine argument for nuclear power if other costs are simply ignored. Yucca Mountain is emblematic of these costs, whether economic, environmental, or health-related. I'd be interested to know how competitive nuclear power remains once those indirect costs are accounted for. Indirect costs are notoriously hard to quantify, but such data needs to be front and center in any meaningful discussion about nuclear (or any other) power.

"At best, wind and solar can only provide 15% of future energy needs."

Based upon which data? The Bush administration has taught us that how one goes about interpreting data is often as much about art as it is about science. Predicting the capabilities of our nascent alternative energy industry will no doubt be a work-in-progress for years to come, as research continues to improve and inform our understanding of this potential.

"Operation of the Yucca repository will be totally safe and provide many jobs. Anti-nuclear propaganda against its operation is based on unsubstantiated fabrications and junk science. Nevada's senators who seem to believe thet [sic] propaganda are severely mis-informed ... ."

Perhaps the author of that comment didn't read the HCN article after all, or did he simply pass over the expert opinions that dissent from his faith in the sanctity of Yucca Mountain? I suspect that some of the dissenters in the article (as well as many others who aren't quoted therein) are not 'Luddites' at all, but are instead objective scientists who are trying to see beyond the perceived band-aid of Yucca Mountain.

"Opposing a practical program to rescue the USA from future energy-deprivation and economic collapse coincides with Bin Laden's objective to destroy our civilization. There are some who may not care and want to live in caves again ... ."

Perhaps Mr. Eerkens failed to notice that the use of fear-mongering as political expedient is out of style again. Still, one has to marvel at his ability to visualize collusion among any and all parties who don't subscribe to his interpretation of the facts. I don't really see how that going to further his agenda, though.

But ... perhaps HE's in collusion with Bin Laden! Now it all starts to make sense.
Anonymous says:
Jan 26, 2009 06:34 AM
Jeff's comments stating that:

wind and solar are only fine for small-quantity energy applications, that they cost three times more than nuclear energy per delivered kWhr, and require expensive battery storage...

are incorrect and demonstrate a lack of knowlege about the capabilities of renewable energy technologies and resources globally. The renewable resources far exceed the world's energy use (by about 10,000 times) so there is no doubt about there being enough out there.

Wind has been proven in Europe and UK to be in the same cost range and even lower, than nuclear, and the thermal storage technologies available for solar thermal offered by AUSRA and others.(90+% of the US' present total energy needs could be provided, day and night, by a 92 mile x 92 mile area in Nevada)see refs below. Solar thermal, wave, and geothermal are all aiming to compete economically with fossil-fuel-generated electricity. Yes, wind may be intermittent, but it can be used with other stored-energy renewable resources such as geothermal, wave, and solar thermal which can throttle up or down on demand.
Jeff and others may like to familiarise themselves with the following references which paint a very capable picture of renewables being able to provide baseload (and better yet, load-following) energy. He also fails to acknowledge the capabilities of wave energy and geothermal energy (natural and engineered).

Wave Technology: CETO

Solar Thermal Technology:
AUSRA (Design/cost/performance)


Worley Parsons AST: (Performance/timeframe)

Solar Energy Systems: (Design/cost/performance)
Also, report: “The Solarmundo line focussing Fresnel collector. Optical and thermal performance and cost calculations”.

BrightSource: (power tower 40% effic solar-to-electricity)

Solar Photovoltaic Technology:
Pacific Gas & Electric with OptiSolar and SunPower:[…]/ (800MW contracts)
SunPower: (case studies)

Wind Technology:

Wind energy installations and capabilities:

Geothermal Technology:
Geodynamics: (general/costs)
Greenrock Energy:[…]e=Hot%20Rock%20Fact%20Sheet

Energy Storage:

Phase-change materials:[…]ea0c0a5b54ac54edc28cea42603

Report: “Simulation of Diurnal Thermal Energy Storage Systems: Preliminary Results” December 1994. Prepared for U.S. Department of Energy under Contract DE-AC06-76RLO 1830 Pacific Northwest Laboratory, Richland, Washington

Renewable Energy Reports/Studies:

TREC & German Aerospace Agency:

Comparison Solar vs nuclear vs wind (Dr D Mills):[…]/Solar,%20Nuclear%20&%20Wind.PDF

Renewable Energy Computer Models:

Global Energy Network Institute:[…]/index.shtml

Anonymous says:
Jan 20, 2009 01:43 PM
What if instead of a liability nuclear waste proved to be an invaluable asset?

In fact, it is.

The global inventory of nuclear waste has the energy potential of 200 operational reactors. The energy return on investment for North America's unconventional oil ranges between 3 and 5.2/1. Thus teh free, carbon-free energy potential of spent fuel can produce roughly 6 billion barrels of synthetic oil.

A recently published study notes that bitumen is unsurpassed in its capacity to sequester radionuclides and the majority of Alberta's oil sands lay beneath a capping shale formation that precludes either radionuclides or hydrocarbon migration to the surface.

Importing nuclear waste to maximize the potential of North America's reserves insures the plutonium within can never be accessed by a terrorist or proliferator.

The profit from 6 billion barrels of oil annually and the opportunity to address a number of mankind's existential threats is more than ample reason to implement the most viable and technically sound solution to the problem of nuclear waste.

Jim Baird, inventor
Nuclear Hydrocarbon Production Method
Anonymous says:
Jan 21, 2009 08:51 AM
When your only tool is a hammer, all problems look like nails.

The two other commenters both come from nuclear backgrounds, and make their money from nuclear technology. It is easy to see why they would support it.

The processes used to mine uranium, mill it, enrich it, fabricate it into fuel rods, the 0-tolerance processes required in using it, the lack of a sound process for storing or transmuting the radioactive byproducts, and the enormous costs and questionable processes for decommissioning plants make nuclear no more of an acceptable energy generation choice than coal.

Our current vision for energy production requires large-scale centralized plants with long transmission lines that place the real risks of the methods on "energy colonization areas," generally rural and indigenous lands. Those in the cities who benefit from centralized energy production rarely live near it, and reap all the benefits without the risks. Clive, Utah, 30 miles from Salt Lake City bears the brunt of decommissioning waste, with ground up reactor buildings, waste water being shipped here for interment. There are no commercial reactors in Utah. Other communities suffer from years of irresponsible disposal of radioactive materials, such as Hanford, Washington, and Savannah River, Georgia. In both cases, major river systems and sources of drinking water have been contaminated.

Our energy paradigm must shift to locally appropriate production techniques, where both the risks and benefits are shouldered by those using it. An area that cannot provide its own energy (or water) should be considered unsustainable for development.

There are many energy technologies out there that have not benefited from the huge subsidies, tax advantages, loan guarantees, liability caps and direct grants to colleges to train personnel as the nuclear industry has. Redistribute some of that largesse to other technologies, and we will move away from the risks of both coal and nuclear into technologies that are truly sustainable.

Eileen McCabe
Nuclear Policy Coordinator
Acting for a Greener World
West Jordan, UT
Anonymous says:
Jan 23, 2009 07:37 PM
The comment that "commenters with nuclear backgrounds make money supporting Yucca" (and thus their views must be clouded) is absurd and presumptious. It shows how irrational and shallow some anti-nuclear groups are. With that attitude, one should suspect all surgeons, oncologists, dentists, and all people who studied a profession because they "make money" from their profession. My positive comments on nuclear energy are not for money but motivated to warn the public that it is being misled by neo-luddites who disguise themselves as environmentalists. Most of such groups don't have a clue about the magnitude of the world's energy budgets and how important nuclear power will be in our future to rescue us from eonomic collapse. They (re-)quote ad nauseum all the falsehoods they read that are promulgated by irresponsible technology haters and junk "science" producers. If one were to follow their scenarios, most of our children and grand-children will be dwelling in tents again without food and heat; millions will die. With their plans, there would not be enough electricity to manufacture cars, airplanes, homes, bridges, etc, and no portable fuels to move vehicles for long-haul transport of food, fertilizers, furniture, and many other products. Anti-nuclear bigots do not comprehend the enormity of the energy shortages we are facing when the world's oil fields start to run out after 2025. Sun and wind power are helpful but only band-aids to provide the world with adequate amounts of prime energy. All energy engineers who have done a realistic evaluation of the worlds requirements and proven solutions, have concluded that we must greatly expand nuclear power. Providence has allowed mankind to discover the use of nuclear energy just in time to avoid the calamities we are otherwise sure to encounter when oil reserves become exhausted. Fortunately not all sincere environmentalists oppose the use of nuclear power. Patrick Moore, founder of Greenpeace, and James Lovelock, England's famous naturalist, fully endorse nuclear power, as did Paul Newman who was originally opposed but after some analysis strongly supported it before he died. We should be thankful that our new super-intelligent president has stated he will relie only on hard scientific facts and not fantasies to implement our nation's energy programs. My hope is that he will stick to that credo.
Anonymous says:
Jan 22, 2009 10:32 AM
A Mountain of Growing Doubt

Judith Lewis’s story “Mountain of Doubt” in the January 19, 2009 issue of HCN provides an admirably accurate and balanced description of the history of Department-of-Energy-led efforts to establish Yucca Mountain as a safe repository of the nation’s high-level nuclear waste. The saga to do so extends back nearly three decades and is steeped in politics. On June 3, 2008, the DOE submitted an application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for permission to construct the repository. However, with the election and swearing in of Barack Obama as President 44, politics once again may sidetrack, if not derail, the successful advance of the Yucca project. I wish to add some possibly “side-tracking” science to the conversation.
    Beyond the politics, Lewis explains, “Doubts about Yucca Mountain’s geologic suitability have piled up as well. A panel of scientists put the chances of igneous disruption in the ridgeline’s ancient field of volcanoes at one in 6,250 over the next 10,000 years.” She points out that even if one in 6,250 seems low, “…in most of the United States the probability of a volcano erupting is zero.”
    I was a member of the panel mentioned by Lewis. A summary of our results by science writer Richard Kerr was published in Science (8 November 1996, v. 274, p. 913-914.) Our marching orders (ten of us selected as experts in volcanology) were to determine the probability that an igneous dike (a thin vertical tabular body) would intersect the repository footprint in the coming 10,000 years. And that’s just what we did. However, during our panel’s business I developed and voiced concern about what the consequences to the repository would be if a dike were to continue on through the repository and feed a violent volcanic eruption. A style of eruption called phreatomagmatic (eruption during which 2,000 degree Fahrenheit magma encounters groundwater and thus triggers violent steam explosions, in addition to the natural explosivity of the magma) could be particularly damaging to the repository. But the panel’s agenda excluded consideration of any style of eruption.
    Fast forward to 2004. Newly collected data resulted in a newly convened panel, whose marching orders not only included consideration of how the repository might be damaged by various styles of eruption, but also extended the time period of interest out to 1,000,000 years. Even most non geologist are familiar with global plate tectonics. At a typical annual rate of 5 centimeters, tectonic plates could shift 50 kilometers in a million years. This carries major implications for forecasting volcanism. Climate might make some drastic shifts, too, including possible wetter times … the kind of climate that would increasingly favor a phreatomagmatic eruption.
    The DOE has recently sponsored studies to model the effects to the repository in the event of an eruption, excluding the phreatomagmatic style. I discovered how strongly this exclusion is felt by some when I submitted a discussion to Eos (the weekly news magazine of the American Geophysical Union) in which I suggested that a phreatomagmatic eruption should also be modeled. My suggestion was panned by an anonymous reviewer as representing “substantive scientific fault”. To which I caution: Ignoring a potential problem does not make it disappear.
    Consider this. Of all possible repository locations within the Nevada Test Site, none is closer to the region’s youngest volcanoes than Yucca Mountain. A half dozen volcanoes are located in Crater Flat, just west of Yucca Mountain. These are less than 1,000,000 years old (perhaps “ancient” to Judith Lewis, but very young to a geologist). The youngest is 80,000 years old, and its deposits include evidence of a possible phreatomagmatic phase of eruption.
    If a HCN reader wishes to see what a phreatomagmatic eruption can do to its host landscape, drive 60 miles west of Yucca Mountain to Ubehebe Crater Volcano at the north end of Death Valley National Park. There, about 2,000 years ago, a phreatomagmatic eruption blasted out a crater a half mile wide and one-thousand-feet deep.
    I am on public record as favoring new electrical generating capacity at nuclear power plants, to help supply future increases in demand. Increasing waste calls for increased storage capacity. However, I submit that using Yucca Mountain for storage would bring exposure to an uncomfortable, and some would argue unacceptable, level of volcanic hazard. Lewis reports that Yucca expert Professor Allison Macfarlane says, “There are lots of places that would be good geologically…” I agree. Yucca Mountain is at the very bottom of my list.

Wendell A. Duffield, PhD
Geology Department
Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff

Anonymous says:
Jan 22, 2009 01:06 PM
Let's stop throwing good money after bad. This project should never have been started. There's little or no margin for error with nuclear power. There's too much risk for disaster. I'm surprised there are still people that want to see this project go forward but then maybe if they had lost a member of their family due to radiation exposure at a nuclear plant they might not be so supportive of it. I don't want more people to die the way my father did.

Anonymous says:
Jan 22, 2009 03:03 PM
Who needs the "help" of nuclear waste when we'll be cleaning it up for a million years... if our species even makes it that long. Whoever came up with it it was a very very bad idea. We should have realized it when Marie Curie died.
Anonymous says:
Jan 28, 2009 05:05 PM
C'mon people if the solution was any closer it would bonk you in the head! The simple and best solution is to find a safe way to transport the waste off of the planet, and send it into the SUN! Secure rocket, secure space elevator, containers secure enough to withstand the effect of a calculable rocket explosion and plunge back to earth without breaking, etc., etc., completely fail safe with redundant back up systems, whatever. It takes some 30 earth diameters to span the width of the sun. The sun is frickin' HUGE and it is basically a nuclear reactor. We could send nuclear waste into the sun forever without causing any problems. I vote that Rush Limbaugh pilot the first flight!
Anonymous says:
Feb 01, 2009 03:18 PM
The only reason the US nuclear industry exists at all these days is because of prolific government subsidies, loan guarantees and other 'free' money. 'Too cheap to meter' nuclear energy is both a myth and a hoax. The nuclear fuel cycle is dirty from start to finish - from mining to milling to processing to generation to disposal. It's high time we finally removed all the subsidies and let the nuclear industry attempt to generate it's own capital on the open market, which will never happen because of the extremely high risks and uncertainties involved. Let's put the final nail in the coffin of this 'industry', it's government subsidies and it's propaganda machine once and for all!