The debate over Yucca Mountain, and the utterly Luddite attitude that Nevada’s political establishment has been taking regarding that project, reveals an absolutely frustrating level of ignorance and fear that the very word “nuclear” evokes in people, whether they be the normal “man in the street” or professionals in various fields.
This outline is an attempt to summarize the issues and provide a minimum level of information to illuminate the subject and help people understand the issues. This outline is written using references to Wikipedia articles. The virtue of those articles is that they are freely accessible on the internet, and are written in such as way that anyone can read them to any depth of detail that they are comfortable with. There is not much point in citing technical articles if they are accessible by paid subscription only, and are written for professionals.
The Source of Nuclear Energy
A number of naturally occurring elements are “radioactive.” These are elements that spontaneously change into another elements by a process called “radioactive decay,” that is, by emitting particles (similar to and sometimes identical to cosmic rays) from their nuclei. Oh, the single most important point: radioactive decay is a process with also releases a tremendous amounts of energy.
(At this point please recall from your Earth Science class in middle school or your Chemistry or Physics class in high school the basic model of an atom: a compact nucleus consisting of protons and neutrons, surrounded by a cloud of electrons (much like the planets are orbiting around the Sun). For a refresher, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atom.)
The process of this radioactive decay is explained very nicely in https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Decay_chain. Please note that the end product of any process of radioactive decay is a stable isotope of another natural element (such as lead or other heavy metals); and if that element presents any potential harm to living organisms, that potential harm arises from its chemical properties; the element at the end of radioactive decay presents no radiological hazards.
At this point please also remember that natural radioactive decay and its byproducts are all around you. It’s in the air, from cosmic rays from which the atmosphere provides great but not total protection. It’s in the soil under your feet wherever you are on this planet; it’s the source of the radon (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radon) in your basement and other un-ventilated areas under your house. It’s in rocks, and of course it’s in minerals in sufficient concentration to make mining economically feasible.
The process of harnessing the burst of energy resulting from radioactive decay and putting it to beneficial human use is explained very nicely in
For the purposes of this outline, please remember two key details from this article.
1. There is no way a nuclear reactor can ever blow up like a bomb. It simply is not built that way and the fuel it uses is not suitable for a bomb.
2. The process to harness energy from the fuel by means of the nuclear reactor is not allowed to run to the completion of natural radioactive decay; and therefore the “spent fuel” is still radioactive when it is removed from the nuclear reactor.
The debate over Yucca Mountain arises from the need to properly handle this “spent fuel.” And again we have two considerations to keep in mind.
1. “Spent fuel” can be stored. Just get it safely out of the way of normal human activity.
2. “Spent fuel” can be reprocessed. That is, it can be remade into a form that is once again useful as fuel in a nuclear reactor.
To understand the technical issues a bit better, please consider taking a side trip to the following.
• The process of manufacturing natural radioactive minerals into a form useful as fuel in a nuclear reactor is described in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_fuel.
• The reprocessing of “spent” nuclear fuel is described in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_reprocessing. At this point it is useful to recall that France has been reprocessing “spent” fuel for decades, from their own nuclear reactors and from other countries across the globe. The technology is mature, and the safety and security issues in the international and intercontinental transport of spent and reprocessed nuclear fuel have also been conducted without incident.
The Political Debate Over Storage of Nuclear Waste
You can get a quick and thorough appreciation of the issues by doing what comes naturally these days to anyone with a computer — do a google search. Each of the searches suggested below returns a number of articles, from general to rather specific, from sheer nonsense to scientifically rigorous. Explore at your pleasure. In subsequent articles I will try to provide a summary similar to an “annotated bibliography” as we used to call them in the dark ages when I went to college.
Scientific arguments against Yucca Mountain
Environmental arguments against Yucca Mountain
Safety and security arguments against Yucca Mountain
Economic arguments against Yucca Mountain
Local arguments against Yucca Mountain
Emotional arguments against Yucca Mountain
Political arguments against Yucca Mountain
The Political Debate Over Reprocessing Nuclear Waste
Scientific arguments against nuclear waste reprocessing
Environmental arguments against nuclear waste reprocessing
Safety and security arguments against nuclear waste reprocessing
Economic arguments against nuclear waste reprocessing
Local arguments against nuclear waste reprocessing
Emotional arguments against nuclear waste reprocessing
Political arguments against nuclear waste reprocessing
A Special Note on the Environmental Impact of Energy Production
As you can see in articles that I linked to in this outline, the manufacture of nuclear fuel as well as the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel involve the use of some uniquely harsh and dangerous chemicals. But this is not much different from the refinement of any ore into raw materials useful in the production of an endless number of products, or the recycling of any those products.
What is unique to nuclear materials is that they naturally decay and eventually become harmless. You can’t say that about any other chemical element or chemical compound on Earth; the only way you can render them harmless is to dilute them, or chemically change them.
At this point it is useful to remember another fact that is never mentioned in this debate. Radioactivity decays at various rates, expressed in terms of half-life. Half-life and radiation intensity are inversely proportional to each other; the shorter the half-life, the more intense the radiation (more dangerous, but for less time) and the longer the half-life, the less intense the radiation (less dangerous, bit for a longer time). Uranium in the soil under your house, under your feet, has a half-life of 4.5B years, so it’s always there, but at low intensity, and at even lower intensity because while it’s literally everywhere, it is also present in very dilute quantities. Just like with gold, you have to process a huge quantity of uranium ore to get any useful (and radiologically dangerous) amounts of it.
As to solar panels and other semiconductors, consider this article:
The manufacture of semiconductors and recycling (if any, to recover silver and gold from the electrical traces and contacts), those processes also use equally harsh and dangerous chemicals. In the 1980s and 1990s the semiconductor manufacturing industry was literally hounded out of Silicon Valley on the basis of accusations, some well founded and some not so much, of serious damage to soil and ground water due to leakage and dumping. So they packed up and moved their operations to the Far East where apparently the people, the soil, air and water are immune to chemical damage. (I’m just being sarcastic…)
And in comparison with fossil fuels,
• Yes, burning any fossil fuel puts CO2 and H2O into the air;
• Incomplete combustion also puts unburned or partially burned hydrocarbons into the air (a.k.a. smog), and,
• For equal amounts of energy produced, burning coal generates literally thousands of railroad carfuls of ash (that is, high concentrations of harsh chemicals leaching into the ground wherever the ash is dumped), while the equivalent amount of nuclear “waste” amounts to a few cubic feet.
So which waste product do you think is easier and safer to dispose of? And remember, ash can NOT be reprocessed into anything useful; nuclear “waste” CAN.
I have done a quick first read of most of the articles returned by the searches shown above. On that basis and on prior knowledge as a scientist (Ph.D. in physics, and a lifelong career in Silicon Valley as a technical writer in its many different industries), it is my opinion that the issue is clear and there is no debate.
OF COURSE the inevitable ” bottom line” is that there are NO reasonable or defensible scientific, environmental, economic, or safety and security arguments against storage in Yucca Mountain or against nuclear waste reprocessing at Yucca Mountain or anyplace else in Nevada. Opposition is based solely on emotion and politics.
There is only tremendous economic GAIN:
1. from the $97B that the feds want to spend HERE IN NEVADA to build the storage facility, and
2. from the currently un-estimated billions to be spent HERE IN NEVADA on its continuing operation, offering new employment to a wide range of skilled, technical and professional workers, and
3. from the $14T that can come from reprocessing HERE IN NEVADA the existing 70K tons of “spent fuel” presently kept in temporary storage in barely secure locations around the country, and
4. from the $197T that is the value of all the coal and other fossil fuels that could be replaced with clean and safe nuclear energy, again with great economic benefit to us HERE IN NEVADA, which the country will burn while we are wringing our hands in fear of “going nuclear.”
And therefore the only question to ask is,
Why is Nevada’s political class so allergic to, so fearful of, and so repulsed by the prospect of all this money?
If you find this article sufficiently informative and compelling, please write to every elected official in Nevada — the US Senators, the US congressmen, the Governor, the constitutional officers of the state government, the state senators and assemblymen — and tell them to drop their irrational opposition to the Yucca Mountain repository project and to the tremendous economic benefit it will bring to Nevada. Well, yes, in other articles I asked you to support it only if it also includes reprocessing. Of course it makes little sense without reprocessing, but one step at a time, right?
You can find all the contact information of these elected officials on Government Links.