Yucca Mountain and Pilgrim — Cape Cod Bay Watch Blog

Yucca Mountain and Pilgrim

Lesley University intern, Marcel Howard, writes about Yucca Mountain and how it relates to the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Plant in Plymouth, MA. Marcel is a 3rd year student at Lesley, majoring in Political Science with a minor in Environmental Studies and will be focusing on issues related to Pilgrim’s nuclear waste storage project for the semester.

Nuclear wastes from nuclear power plants around the U.S. were supposed to be sent to a federal geological repository off-site. However, the proposed storage site, Yucca Mountain in Nevada, was cancelled in 2010, and there is currently no other alternative. With that said, Entergy’s nuclear waste is stranded at Pilgrim and it has the potential to be there for hundreds, if not thousands of years.

Irradiated (or “spent”) fuel from reactors contains over 95% of the radioactivity in all the waste ever generated by industrial-scale nuclear activity in the U.S. (including the production of nuclear weapons).  Nuclear waste is expected to be highly radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years according to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).[1] With that said, proper long-term containment is critical in properly storing nuclear waste.

In 1957, the National Academy of Sciences convened a meeting of scientists and engineers to consider the permanent disposition of long-lived highly radioactive wastes from commercial nuclear power reactors and nuclear weapons production. Their conclusion was that nuclear waste could be disposed in mines built in deep salt deposits that were 200 to 300 million years old.

In 1977, Yucca Mountain (Located on the Western Shoshone Treaty Lands in Nevada) was considered an acceptable location. A decade later in 1987, Congress amended the Nuclear Waste Policy Act to make the Yucca Mountain site the only candidate site for characterization and recommendation for development as a repository.  However, with this decision came strict opposition against the project.

In 1998, the Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS) petitioned Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson, to disqualify Yucca Mountain from consideration as a nuclear waste repository site since new data showed that it would not meet the Site Recommendation Guidelines in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act.  The key issue was the rate of movement of water inside the rock at the Yucca Mountain site. The tuff, a rock formed of compressed volcanic ash, is heavily fractured at this site due to ongoing seismic activity. The fractures allow surface water to travel into and through the mountain far more quickly than the guideline criterion permits. The guideline says that the site should be disqualified if the groundwater travel time from the buried waste to the accessible environment is less than 1,000 years.

Between the years of 2001 and 2002, the Department of Energy (DOE) eliminated all qualifying and disqualifying conditions for the Yucca Mountain site, including the disqualifying condition that required groundwater travel time from the repository to the accessible environment be greater than 1,000 years. Also, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) revised its repository-licensing rule to rely on TSPA [Total System Performance Assessment] model analysis as the only compliance measure for protection of the public from radionuclide releases. It eliminated subsystem performance requirements such as a requirement for substantially complete radionuclide containment in the repository for at least the first 1,000 years. It also set no requirement that the geologic barrier be primary for waste isolation, and set no limit on the contribution of the engineered barrier protection against loss of waste isolation.

From 1976 to 1996, more than 600 earthquakes measured over 2.5 on the Richter scale within 50 miles of Yucca Mountain.  Over time the number of known fault lines at Yucca Mountain has grown to 33, which has helped in proving that Nevada is the 3rd most earthquake prone state.

These facts, along with a long list of other issues, are what ultimately led to the Obama Administration taking Yucca Mountain off the table in 2010. Many throughout the nuclear industry were very upset about Obama’s decision to cancel Yucca Mountain; however, this just shows that they are less concerned with Yucca mountain and more interested in getting the industry’s lethal radioactive waste away from its reactors sites because of liability.

In conclusion, highly radioactive waste is piling up at reactor sites, such as at Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth, MA. Nuclear wastes are piling up at these sites because commercial nuclear facilities are continuing to generate it without a permanent storage solution in place. Thus, the ultimate solution to this problem of radioactive waste is to stop making more. Until this occurs, nuclear waste will continue to pile up at Pilgrim, and Plymouth will be home to this nuclear waste potentially forever.

[1] U.S. NRC. 2012. High-level waste.

Photo: Yucca Mountain; en.wikipedia.org