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Burial Ground

Fear and Loathing at Yucca Mountain
by David Forest

When the first U.S. commercial nuclear reactor hummed to life in 1957, the nation shackled itself to a burden of radioactive waste that will remain dangerous for hundreds of thousands of years. In 1982, Congress made deep burial the official U.S. disposal method for highly radioactive waste, and told the Department of Energy (DOE) to study three possible sites and choose two. Five years later, for reasons as much political as scientific, the field was reduced to one: Yucca Mountain, a dry, hot, isolated hill in Nevada. Since then, reams of studies on the site have come in -- raising some significant questions. Yet this spring, President Bush anointed Yucca the country's high-level nuclear refuse repository for ten thousand years. If the Senate votes to confirm by early July, overriding a veto by Nevada's governor, waste could start arriving by 2010. But the lawsuits are already piling up, further fueling scientific debate over the little mountain DOE has proposed as a nuclear sacrifice zone.

Clear Skies Tunnel Vision Road Rage Rock Solid

Photo of a tunnel boring machine Tunnel Vision
This portal near the mountain leads to the Exploratory Studies Facility. A hundred stories underground, DOE proposes to excavate enough tunnels to store 77,000 tons of high-level waste. Most is uranium ore from commercial power generators; from the government and military come plutonium and other exotic substances. Waste containers would be made of stainless steel and a synthetic blend of corrosion-resistant metals called Alloy 22. If the metal stays dry, indications are that waste could be contained for ten thousand years. But if water enters the tunnels, things get dicey. The containers have been tested for corrosion, but it is not certain how the results of lab experiments lasting mere months can be extrapolated over ten millennia. Another concern: the damaging power of radioactive heat.

Cutaway drawing of a tunnel Clear Skies
Water, which can rust waste containers, dissolve radioactive compounds, and carry toxic solutions underground toward people's wells, has long been recognized as the most likely escape route for buried radionuclides. Thus, the search for a repository has been an act of anti-divining -- a quest to find the driest place in the country. Rainfall is slight in the Nevada desert, and the water table is among the deepest in the world. But some scientists speculate that higher rainfall, occurring as often as once a decade, might cause hundreds of millimeters of water to filter into the ground -- roughly a thousand times more than originally predicted. And the climate could change. The desert here may have been up to five times wetter and 10 degrees centigrade colder in the past. Best guesses for future precipitation range from no change to twice the present amount.

Road Rage
Waste would reach Yucca by either road or rail. Trains can handle bigger loads, meaning fewer shipments and a statistically lower chance of accidents, but also higher doses of radiation in a crash. The state of Nevada says an accident could cause tens of thousands of cancer deaths. DOE estimates worst-case fatalities at forty-eight -- even in the case of a tunnel fire, a waste canister falling off a bridge into a river, or a commercial jetliner crashing into a waste-filled vehicle. But DOE has not yet selected the final design for the transport canisters.

Rock Solid?
The mountain is made of tuff (hardened volcanic ash), which was originally believed to offer an impermeable barrier to moisture. But Yucca's proximity to Death Valley -- one of America's most active fault systems -- makes earthquakes almost a sure bet over the repository's life span. In 1992, the project field office was damaged by an earthquake of magnitude 5.5 that struck 12 miles to the southeast. Quakes alone might not disturb the deeply buried waste, but they could raise the water table (as much as 800 feet, according to one controversial study). And they are almost certain to further fracture the tuff. Fracturing has occurred during past earthquakes at Yucca. There is evidence that the resulting cracks may have allowed rainfall to seep downward through the rock: Two chemicals that were created in the atmosphere by 1950s nuclear weapons tests have been found in exploratory tunnels within the mountain. If accurate, this research suggests that rainwater traveled hundreds of yards below the earth's surface in just fifty years.

Architectural design for a nuclear waste site R.I.P.
A marking system to warn future cultures away from the site has not been chosen. But in 1992, Sandia National Laboratory convened experts in anthropology, archeology, linguistics, materials science, and other fields to study ways for -- in the words of panel member Ward Goodenough -- "making a place look damn uninviting." The panel favored menacing designs with towering stone spikes and drawings of faces expressing horror and sickness. It recommended that all nuclear waste sites not only be clearly marked with technical information, but also communicate more fundamental concepts: "This place is not a place of honor. What is here was dangerous and repulsive to us. This place is a message. Pay attention to it! We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture."

Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board

Yucca Mountain Project (DOE)

NRDC lawsuit over Yucca groundwater rules

David Forest is a geologist and environmental consultant in western Canada. He has written science columns for a number of newspapers across the country.

Photos and illustrations: Courtesy of U.S. Department of Energy

OnEarth. Summer 2002
Copyright 2002 by the Natural Resources Defense Council