Why the Western US Is Anti-Nuclear

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Michael Cain

Michael is a systems analyst, with a taste for obscure applied math. He's interested in energy supplies, the urban/rural divide, regional political differences in the US, and map-like things. Bicycling, and fencing (with swords, that is) act as stress relief.

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91 Responses

  1. Avatar Damon says:

    Hanford has been a cluster f since day one. I know people who worked there, through various contractors. It’s nothing more than a make work job. The employees know the pace of movement–glacial–and know that they’ll retire there and nothing will have been done before they go.

    This stuff has to go somewhere but no one wants to take it. Sadly we can’t shove it into a breeder reactor and reduce the size. They threw all kinds of crap into those pits. God knows if there’s even a full accounting of what’s in each pit.Report

  2. Avatar Will H. says:

    I remember hearing a few years back that the Columbia River project was going to go online in a year or two.
    The general concensus was that no one wanted to be around it when it happened.
    That one was the victim of cost-plus bidding.

    I grew up not far from the WIPP site.
    I’ll keep my thoughts on WIPP to myself, but I will disclose that they are not generally positive.

    I really would like to see vitrification develop to a viable technology.
    That seems the rational first step toward any expansion of nuclear.

    Which leads me to believe that things will actually occur more along the opposite lines.Report

  3. Avatar Joe Sal says:

    Salient predictions.Report

  4. Avatar Burt Likko says:

    I’ve a different point of view.

    Diablo Canyon in central California has been a successful, perhaps imperfect, but generally safe, nucl ar power generation facility. Its problems have been nothing like Hanford or even San Onofre. This doesn’t vindicate Hanford, WIPP, or any of the cruddy politics surrounding nuclear power. But it does demonstrate that electricity can be generated in this way.

    I haven’t heard, and I do not read here, that the technical problems regarding disposal of spent nuclear fuel are insurmountable. They are challenging, everyone agrees. But not insurmountable. Meanwhile, nuclear power offers single generator potential that is several orders of magnitude more powerful than renewables. This is an indispensable part of providing the power solution for the future.

    So in my opinion, politicians, including those representing jurisdictions in the American west, need to embrace the inevitability of nuclear power. Our large scale power needs are such that solar and wind alone will simply not meet them. So they ought to put money into R&D aimed at figuring out the vitrification puzzle.

    They ought to confront and resolve the problem of a waste disposal facility, or perhaps multiple facilities. Yucca Mountain man got be the answer after all. Certainly the people who live near yet deserve to be heard and listened to carefully. But this is a national problem, and it will require a solution at the national level. Sometimes local interests must bow to that. Alternatively, politicians must confront the idea the transporting spent nuclear fuel from facilities elsewhere in the country to Yucca mountain is inherently dangerous, so it could be that the best solution our regional depositories in multiple locations around the country.

    I agree with the sentiment expressed in The OP that there are going to be errors caused by human mistakes, errors with potentially catastrophic consequences. This need not be the case, but people are people. As long as human beings are doing something, there’s a potential for something to go wrong. This has not been a reason not to do something new, or something that has both high risk and high reward. As with other high risk high reward endeavors, we should certainly undertake safeguards to minimize the risk, but the presence of any risk at all is not a reason to not proceed.

    Finally, I believe that it is possible, perhaps not probable, but possible, for leaders to sit down and resolve these matters in reasonably good faith, and reasonably free of political pressure. This will probably involve delegating the creation of proposals to subject matter expert’s, and leaving political consideration to picking one of a small number of solutions that are offered.

    No solution will satisfy all stakeholders. Politics is inherently the balancing of competing stakeholder interests, all of which are valid. There will be losers. It is possible for a solution to create a net win nevertheless.Report

    • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to Burt Likko says:

      This is the meat of the issue, which I am pretty Michael was getting at. The problems with nuclear Power are almost entirely political. Michael’s post explores the political football that is the eastern half of the US being willing to kick the radioactive can over to the western half, but that is only one part of the problem.

      There are large swaths of US regulation that forces the nuclear industry to make less than ideal technical choices in order to satisfy (largely ignorant) political desires. We aren’t allowed to recycle nuclear waste, so we have to store it. We aren’t allowed to seriously explore alternative reactor designs that are safer or produce less waste, so we are stuck with a reactor design that is going on 70 years old, one that was developed during the infancy of our understanding of nuclear power & essentially only permitted to undergo incremental changes.

      Engineers & Physicists have been exploring the fission side of nuclear power for a lot longer, and a lot more intently, than the fusion side, and yet Greenpeace still gets to set the political goals of nuclear power.Report

    • Avatar Francis in reply to Burt Likko says:

      Diablo Canyon, really? The powerplant whose construction was so poorly managed that PG&E spent billions on a retrofit due to its failure to print flipped blueprints? A power plant sitting in the heart of earthquake country? Where PG&E still has no realistic plan for decommissioning?

      The problem with nuclear power is that the failure mode has the potential to be utterly catastrophic. As a single, focused source, the harms are uniquely focused while the benefits are diffused far more widely.

      And with respect, Brother Likko, but this excerpt: “it is possible … for leaders to … resolve these matters … reasonably free of political pressure” is an oxymoron. The provision of any necessity — be it water, TV or electricity — at a societal scale is intrinsically political. As you point out, there will be losers. Why shouldn’t their voices be heard? Why shouldn’t they be compensated for their loss?Report

      • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to Francis says:

        The problem with nuclear power existing reactor designs is that the failure mode has the potential to be utterly catastrophic.Report

        • Avatar Francis in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

          Fair enough. My ignorance regarding the nuclear industry is both deep and wide.

          But what little I know appears to indicate that people are utterly irrational about radioactive contamination. If people are going to insist on a level of safety that is unrealistic, then the power plants will get ever larger (to reduce the cost of safety per watt), more complex and more expensive. I seem to recall reading that the generation of power plants in Europe currently under construction have gone wildly over-budget.

          Telling people in a democracy to put aside their irrational fears and suck it up has gone so well that Yucca Mountain is now open and religious exemptions against vaccines are not to be found. Wait, that’s not right.

          So what we really need is a joint public/private partnership in developing a single standard design that everyone buys into, including the thoughtful opponents. In today’s political climate, does anyone see that happening?Report

          • Avatar Will H. in reply to Francis says:

            “Getting bigger” means different things at different points of a power plant.
            The reactor part is naturally limited in size, because a concentrated mass of radioactive material can take on a life all its own,sort of like a fire burning out of control.
            The other parts are sure to get bigger, due to innovations in boiler design.
            Additionally, all of the newer plants I know of run on supercritical steam conditions. That was not possible until the late 80’s, and not really feasible until the early 90’s. The steel to handle those steam conditions was not available before then. A lot of 5-Cr and 9-Cr now. Nasty stuff to work with, and it requires a bake-out, meaning it takes a lot longer too (which translates into costs).

            So, certain parts of the plants will get bigger, but not for safety’s sake.

            There really isn’t any form of generating power that has the potential to cause genetic mutations the way that nuclear does.
            Time and distance matter a lot in calculating exposure levels. (The exposure levels aren’t actually “calculated,” except as a matter of an engineering set-point. The actual exposure level is measure by little meters that look like a pen. The readings are recorded, then compared to a film badge to verify the readings.)

            Whatever innovation takes place, I don’t think it’s a matter of political will. That battle was fought long ago.
            The innovations will come from other nations that have continued to develop their technologies while we stood frozen in time.Report

          • Avatar Alan Scott in reply to Francis says:

            Yeah, actually. Anti-nuke sentiment is concentrated in those old enough to remember the Soviet Union. Millennials grew up without uranium ever being a weapon that we felt threatened by. Simultaneously, rhetoric about the environment and conservation is so heated that there are swathes of people who are specifically pro-pollution because it pisses off the other team.

            I can easily envision a situation in the next few decades where a liberal leader who is seen as a champion of the environment pulls a Nixon-to-China moment and leads us to a Nuclear-powered future with a united coalition of technocrats, hippie-punchers, and the young.Report

          • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to Francis says:

            As with many things that involve irrational fears, the fears are perpetuated largely by hyperbole, bad information, and outright lies. People look at Chernobyl, 3 Mile, & Fukushima & hold those as examples of the danger, without understanding what failed, or the actual extent of the damage (Chernobyl is the only one that was truly horrible). They are fed BS from people who should know better, who do know better, but who have an interest if keeping that fear stoked.Report

          • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to Francis says:

            So what we really need is a joint public/private partnership in developing a single standard design that everyone buys into…

            When I put my old systems analyst hat on, I see a need for at least two designs in the US. The Western Interconnect is arid and would need a design that can be air cooled, which requires that the reactor operate at higher temperatures and pressures to get acceptable efficiencies. The Eastern Interconnect is water-rich and can get similar efficiencies at lower temperature and pressure (and cost) using water cooling. To use the classic single-design example, France has comparatively little difference in water availability across the entire country.

            One of the reasons that wind and solar are popular in the states of the Western Interconnect is that water for conventional thermal power plants is largely unavailable. Blue Castle Holdings is an at least semi-serious company looking to build reactors in the West, with most of the power to be sold into the lucrative Southern California market. Eastern Utah was the closest location where they could find sufficient available water rights to build a conventional nuke.Report

            • Avatar Glyph in reply to Michael Cain says:

              Knowing absolutely nothing about nukes – is “air-cooled” currently even a feasible technological option when we are talking nuclear?

              I used to drive a car with an “air-cooled” engine, but that pretty much only works for an engine that isn’t generating that much energy, relatively-speaking.Report

              • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to Glyph says:

                Yes, air cooling is feasible, when you have lots of real estate to spread the cooling out over.

                ETA That assumes we are actually talking about air cooling and not gas cooling, which uses cryogenic gases (like helium) to do the cooling.Report

              • Avatar Glyph in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

                How much real estate do you need? The more spread-out the facility is, the less-secure, I’d think.Report

              • Avatar North in reply to Glyph says:

                Security is kindof a canard. The ability of terrists to cause some kind of nuclear plant disaster is consistantly overstated.

                Also you could secure the plant without securing the cooling fields, someone driving an RV full of fertilizer into cooling vanes is going to make them shift the plant down but it’s not going to cause a disaster.Report

              • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to Glyph says:

                Understand that the cooling we are talking about happening in some large cooling array would have no radioactive material in it. So it’s as North said, damage to the cooling array would cause the reactor to slow down or scrub, but it would not be a poor man’s dirty bomb.Report

              • Avatar Glyph in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

                @north @oscar-gordon I’m aware that it wouldn’t be a radioactive disaster; but causing a reactor shutdown (and therefore grid blackouts) by damaging cooling equipment would still be a legitimate security concern. If the air-cooling real estate required is large, presumably so will be the cost of keeping it all secure.Report

              • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to Glyph says:

                Eh, you’d have to take out A LOT of a spread out array to cause a reactor to scram.

                Still, vertical does have a smaller footprint & we have a lot of experience with cooling towers.Report

              • Avatar Will H. in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

                Cooling towers are much more than is needed nowadays.
                That is so that one can come off-line to change the chemicals, or other service, without affecting the operability of the plant.Report

              • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to Will H. says:

                Will

                You mean you need more cooling towers, or just more than cooling towers?Report

              • Avatar Will H. in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

                Every design I’ve seen calls for more towers, though I suppose supplementing with some other type of system would also be effective.Report

              • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to Glyph says:

                You can go vertical as well. This picture shows a pair of 600 MW natural-draft dry cooling towers. These are 150 meters high.Report

              • Avatar Glyph in reply to Michael Cain says:

                OK, so air-cooling is already a thing (I’ve seen towers like that). I figured water was always required. And yeah, vertical seems like a better option, since controlling airspace is (mostly) easier (well, until everyone has drones).Report

              • Avatar North in reply to Glyph says:

                Better, but more expensive.Report

              • Avatar Kolohe in reply to Glyph says:

                One thing to keep in mind is that the cooling medium can directly effect the nuclear reaction, aside from just temperature control. For instance, in the classic Pressurize Water Reactor, water is the primary coolant (and kept under pressure to prevent from boiling). This does three things 1) keep the reactor fuel ‘cool’. 2) provide a heat transfer mechanism to heat up something else that in turn produces electricity (e.g. a steam generator that, like the label says, generates steam that goes to turbines which are in turn the prime movers for electrical generators 3) provide a moderator that makes the reaction possible in the first place.

                This step 3 is the most important for a PWR. There are two types of neutrons, fast neutrons and thermal neutrons. When producing power (instead of just a bomb), the thermal neutrons are what makes the reaction controllable at some equilibrium. The moderator turns fast neutrons (who, in a ordinary geometry, would just fly off into space not hitting anything) slow down through interactions with the moderator, which makes them more likely to hit a Uranium nucleus.

                The nice safety feature about a PWR is that without water, the whole thing shuts down automatically. The problem is that the leftover nuclear decay creates heat, and that heat must be dissipated, so losing water is on net, a bad thing, just not immediately terribad. (the other problem is that the void space tends to fill up with Hydrogen gas, and that’s not a good thing either).Report

              • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to Kolohe says:

                Kolohe: (the other problem is that the void space tends to fill up with Hydrogen gas, and that’s not a good thing either).

                See: FukushimaReport

              • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to Kolohe says:

                I was trying to stay away from primary, secondary, and tertiary cooling loops, neutron moderation, and other techie porn :^)Report

    • Avatar Chip Daniels in reply to Burt Likko says:

      Like Francis I don’t have expertise in nuclear power above any layman.
      But the fear issue is interesting.

      One of the signature successes of the conservative movement is sowing distrust of government, and more recently the scientific establishment.
      But cynicism is a funny thing. Distrust of government never translated into a shifting of trust to private enterprise.
      So we have a society that has no faith in large power centers of any sort.

      How could nuclear power not become collateral damage?

      The stuff I’m reading here is so earnest and trusting it makes me nostalgic, like reading an old issue of Popular Science from 1948 (Atomic powered washing machines! Asbestos children’s pajamas!)

      But then again I sound like that a lot of time, don’t I, what with my calls for a 1960 style tuition-free University of California system, or a national health care system or neo-WPA jobs program.

      These thing go hand in hand.
      If, as curmudgeonly conservatives like to remind us, utopian dreams harbor dystopian failures, what does a society drained entirely of dreams harbor?Report

    • @burt-likko
      Well, you’re certainly not alone here in thinking that’s what should happen. But is there any evidence that California in particular will go in that direction (and to a very large degree, as California goes, so goes the West).

      I usually limit my policy bets to one beer, but I’m willing to bet you a six-pack of a good microbrew that PG&E will retire the Diablo Canyon reactors on or before their current operating licenses run out (2024 and 2025, IIRC). Estimates for cooling upgrades to meet the new discharge standards seem to run from $2B to $12B. Assume $7B — that buys a lot of natural gas-fired generating capacity, which pairs nicely (from a reliability standpoint) with the availability in a few years of a large and increasing amount of wind power from Wyoming. The Transwest Express transmission line’s final environmental impact statement was blessed earlier this year, which will tie the SoCal/Las Vegas/Phoenix triangle to the east side of the Continental Divide.

      When I spin western secession stories, I never talk about California going off on its own. California sits at the center (figuratively) of an enormous energy network that extends as far as El Paso, Wyoming and Alberta. That’s not a criticism, it just means that the West is a whole thing. The same characteristic applies to the Northeast Urban Corridor — its energy network extends as far as Quebec to the north and Illinois to the West. The urban corridor is a whole lot more dependent on nuclear than California, though, and doesn’t have the opportunities to build the kind of regional renewable network California can.Report

  5. Framing this as a regional battle is interesting, and not something I considered in the past when the conversation of nuclear power came up. You do make a pretty good case for why this Colorado containment plant is a mess; is there any scenario where you can justify building these plants in the west/taking on the radioactive waste?Report

  6. Avatar Road Scholar says:

    FWIW, my sister worked in the PR dept at Hanford for a while. I can’t imagine how stressful and thankless that job was.Report

  7. Avatar North says:

    All good points, a couple mild protests:
    -Many of the problems you’re talking about here are a result of nuclear weapons production. I think it is obvious that nuclear weapon manufacture =/= nuclear power but I wanted to put that out there.
    -The balance of the problems are fundamentally human problems, manufactured by us and the imposed on nuclear power through unwise and counterproductive rules. We’re required to bury nuclear “waste” instead of reprocessing it, for instance. We’re required to use over fifty year old reactor designs instead of developing new better ones.
    So basically nuclear power could be a feasible power source, but we’d have to clear out the scrub brush and calcified nonsense that has crusted up around it’s use first.Report

    • Avatar Will H. in reply to North says:

      There are plants to convert the weapons-grade stuff to energy production. I talked to a fellow that was going to a plant in Georgia about that three years ago.

      The big unspoken word here is: Water.

      It is the water usage (both in the mining and energy production processes) which make coal unattractive.
      The emissions issues have largely been solved, though implementation of the newer technologies in the U.S. has been dreadfully slow.
      CO2 is the last big hurdle, and over half of that system is already figured out.
      My prediction is that whatever the solution is for CO2 will create a lot of ground-level ozone.Report

      • Avatar North in reply to Will H. says:

        Well yes water is a concern of course. Serendipitously the places that would have the hardest time picking up on renewals have large supplies of cool water.

        My skepticism of coal CO2 capture is extremely high. Also IIRC ozone is, itself, a powerful greenhouse gas so if the CO2 “solution” is ozone that’d be like using brain cancer to cure lung cancer. I have a strong suspicion that coal is going to end up stuck in the ground in a lot of places.Report

        • Avatar Will H. in reply to North says:

          Ground-level ozone acts differently than atmospheric ozone. The main hazards with ground-level ozone are deterioration (the way it actually does it is pretty cool though– it ages things), and it’s an asphyxiant. It also tends to break up fairly quickly not far from its source.
          But a big, heaping mess of it in one place is going to be a big problem.Report

    • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to North says:

      Exactly. Almost every problem with nuclear power is a problem that we’ve decided to have.

      We keep hearing about how Congress should say “the hell with states’ rights, we’re passing legislation that’ll cram sustainable energy down people’s throats!” What if someone said “hey, how about a law saying that no legal action shall impede the construction of a nuclear power plant that is using a DOE-approved design?”Report

      • Avatar North in reply to DensityDuck says:

        Nuclear is my seriousness yardstick for AGW advocacy. AGW activists say that change is needed, dramatic change and likely sweeping social change. If I point out to them that “hey, we could just rejigger our regulations around nuclear and provide near full base-load power via carbon free fission” and they hem and haw and say stuff like nuclear is too expensive or evil or changing the rules around it is too hard then I know they’re not serious on the subject of AGW.Report

        • Avatar Francis in reply to North says:

          I would encourage you to reconsider your yardstick. There are plenty of serious analysts who consider nuclear power to be far less economical and far less prudent than a diversified portfolio of demand management, wind, solar and storage. (The Rocky Mountain Institute is one place to start, here.)

          Speaking of externalities, if nuclear has been such a good option, why haven’t more plants been built? The Bush administration had vast popularity after 9/11; a plan to reduce reliance on imported oil would have swept through Congress. Is it just the awesome power of anti-nuke activists, or did even conservatives choke on the insurance obligations that nuke power proponents want to shift onto the federal government?Report

          • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to Francis says:

            Personally, I’m not necessarily interested in more of the same with regard to nuclear. Trusting the future to an old design with glaring issues is rightly something to be questioned.

            What I want is the NRC to get serious about letting companies get serious about actually testing alternative reactor designs at scale. It’s one thing to prove the physics in a lab with a small setup, but working out the engineering bugs of a full scale reactor design that has never been built before requires actually building one.

            When TerraPower gets US permission to build a test reactor, I’ll believe we are serious about nuclear again.

            As for conservatives, I’m not sure, but I’m betting the fear of dirty bombs is their bugbear, rather than insurance for old reactors.Report

            • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

              Pebble bed reactors (among the other Gen IV designs) are pretty sweet and strike me as being something that we really ought to be spending more time researching and experimenting with.

              While I understand that Three Mile Island casts a long shadow, we’re changed focus to building nuclear reactors that we will expect to fail rather than hope will succeed. That alone is a major leap.Report

              • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to Jaybird says:

                Seeing as how (AFAIK) no one has ever gotten permission to build a GenIV reactor prototype, I have little hope of a change anytime soon. To too many people, every fission reactor is a potential 3-Mile Island, even if the engineering says otherwise.Report

              • The Fort St. Vrain reactor in Colorado came close in terms of technology. Pebble-like fuel pellets that included fertile thorium material and resulting high burn-up rates. High temperature gas coolant provided thermal efficiency that light-water reactors only dream about. Passively safe in the sense that a core meltdown simply couldn’t occur. Ultimately a technical success, commercially a nightmare. Wouldn’t be a bad starting point if the West were adopting nuclear — use a closed Brayton rather than Rankine cycle and you might get away with air cooling rather than water cooling, dealing with one of the major hurdles for thermal power plants in the arid West.Report

              • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to Michael Cain says:

                This is what I mean. A proof of concept that was actually very useful in terms of plant engineering, had incredible efficiency & safety compared to existing reactors, and no one has tried to build another one because…?

                Wait, I read further, there is another one planned, for 2021. Vrain stopped running as a nuclear station in 1989.

                So 30 years between the decommissioning of the prototype and a second go.Report

              • Avatar Lyle in reply to Michael Cain says:

                Here is a link to the Wikipedia article about the plant. It appears there were design problems with the helium circulators, and water infiltration into the reactor. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fort_St._Vrain_Generating_Station
                The water issues lead to corrosion and shutdown of the reactor.
                It is claimed that the issues have been fixed, but note that noone has yet filed an application to build such a reactor.Report

              • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to Lyle says:

                Yeah, I read that. Common engineering problems for a prototype facility, so not unexpected, or insurmountable.Report

              • Which says, with the benefit of hindsight, that the NRC shouldn’t have licensed it for commercial use, and it should have been built at one of the national labs on the taxpayers’ dime as a research project.Report

              • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to Michael Cain says:

                When was the last time the NRC did that? I mean I know Los Alamos & Oakridge do nuclear research, but an actual production scale reactor for debugging?Report

              • The fast flux reactor DOE built at the Hanover Site, I suppose. The NRC and DOE are currently going back and forth about the licensing procedure to be used for a high-temperature gas-cooled reactor prototype that DOE is supposed to build at the Idaho National Laboratory. INL is the federal government’s official reactor research and test facility, and has its own set of clean-up issues to deal with.Report

          • Avatar North in reply to Francis says:

            Nuclear is opposed by every side of the AGW debate, the AGW interventionists for woo reasons and the AGW opponents out of full on denial-ism.

            As has been noted earlier the entire deck (in the US mind, the French are virtually entirely nuclear powered) is stacked against nuclear power by all of the relevant interests. But as you have baldly stated you know very little about nuclear power there’s not a lot to debate. The point is that if AGW is as serious as it is claimed then ruling out nuclear strongly implies that the persons priority is not reducing carbon emissions. Tearing down the man made barriers to economical nuclear power would be considerably easier in a technical sense than converting the entire economy to a entirely hypothetical menu of politically palatable renewable power sources. In a political sense I’d say the jury is still out.Report

  8. Avatar Lyle says:

    Actually there is a solution, for the waste from power plants move the current storage casks to the deserts of NV and western UT. Don’t bury them just place them in a fenced area. When you consider there are stretches of 100 miles with no services on US 50 (Mostly in UT). There is plenty of land, (as also in the snake river plain in ID). Then after a couple of hundred years when the energy output of the waste has died down separate into components by half life and bury the remaining long half life products.Perhaps the cask storage should be put near area 51 in NV just above ground in the current dry casks. Above ground makes it easy to change ones mind. (one might study what size of earthquake would topple the current casks, and add more weight to lower the center of gravity.)Report

    • Avatar North in reply to Lyle says:

      I’ve read that burial in salt is also a highly feasible solution since salt “flows” (very slowly) and the containment would be self sealing. The biggest concern is losing track of the stuff after a few centuries.Report

      • Avatar Lyle in reply to North says:

        I read that after 40 years the radioactivity of the waste is down to 1/1000 of the value at the time of removal from the reactor. So if you use 120 years of cask storage your down to about 1/8000 of the original value. Note that because the US does not reprocess nuclear fuel there is still valuable Uranium in the fuel rods. If after 120 years you were to remove the U and Pu from the fuel, your down to needing 9000 years to return to the radioactivty of the original ore.
        9 to 10 thousand years is much easier to handle geologically than 100s of thousands.
        In fact if you do the separation and then put the non U,Pu in salt knowing that the salt will last 10k years is not that hard. (Since many of the beds have lasted millions of years so far)Report

      • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to North says:

        My understanding of the current science is that the top two choices are deep salt domes and deep non-faulted granite (Yucca Mountain is neither of these). Salt domes are plastic and after about 60 years it’s hard to keep the storage volume from closing up. That’s good, unless you want to operate the repository for longer than that, or decide after a couple of centuries that you want to retrieve the uranium and plutonium. Granite has the opposite advantages/disadvantages — it will stay open, retrieval is straightforward, but sealing isn’t automatic. Salt domes are most common along the Gulf Coast. The best granite sites are northern Minnesota/Wisconsin and the Adirondacks in New York.

        Recall that DOE’s original plan was for a large repository in the East close to all of the Eastern reactors, and a much smaller repository in the West for the small number of reactors there. Both salt domes and deep granite were on DOE’s original list of sites to be evaluated. Everything but Yucca Mountain was eventually removed from the list by Congress for political reasons.Report

    • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to Lyle says:

      The regional argument — and this is not new — is that if dry cask storage is so safe that hundreds of thousands of tons of spent fuel can be hauled thousands of miles across the country and stacked in one place in Utah or Nevada, then it must be safe enough to just leave it stacked near the reactors, of which Utah and Nevada have exactly zero.

      Here’s the executive summary (PDF) of an interesting report from 2010 by the technical board charged by Congress with evaluating DOE’s storage tech. The conclusion is, basically, we have little understanding of how well the dry casks will hold up in the medium term (60 to 120 years) and almost no idea how they will hold up in the long term (>120 years). Both categories as classed as open research questions.Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to Michael Cain says:

        I can sympathize with the regional argument, but framing it that way stacks (heh) the deck a little against the national argument.

        Another way to say “stacked near the reactors” is “stacked near densely populated and/or agriculturally-important areas”. If the material is dangerous, and must be stored, storage in sparsely-populated desert still seems preferable, overall, to storage in more densely-populated and agriculturally-significant areas.

        Propane tanks are relatively safe – safe enough to transport them to and from the Home Depot – but you still store them out in your shed, away from where most people spend most of their time – not in your living room, where many people frequently are. That way, if they DO leak and explode, fewer people on average will be injured.

        If we don’t know how well the casks will hold up over time, then it seems to me that they need to come out of metaphorical “living room/kitchen” of the country sooner rather than later, while the casks are still in relatively good shape, and those desert areas are still relatively sparsely-populated.

        I know that sucks for the people living in the country’s “back yard”, and I know that the act of transportation carries its own risks. It’s also potentially risky for me to move certain dangerous items away from my living space – but it still has to happen, if leaving them in place would mean maximal casualties in case of accident (and risk of accident rises over time).

        The question is how to best compensate the Western states for “taking one for the team”. Nevada may well have to get screwed, but it should at least be compensated handsomely for it somehow.

        (Though it occurs to me – whatever that compensation is, it CAN’T be something that makes Nevada an attractive place for people to move to, or we will defeat the whole purpose).Report

        • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to Glyph says:

          Purely for the sake of extending the argument… There are places in upstate New York and Vermont that would provide an excellent deep-granite repository site. Better hydrological isolation than Yucca Mountain. Local population already shrinking. Farther from the nearest million-person metro area. Much closer to most commercial reactors, eliminating tens or hundreds of thousands of cask-miles of transport.

          Hanford, Rocky Flats, the Nevada Test Site, WIPP… New York or Vermont can take one for the team this time, with no greater risks.Report

        • Avatar Murali in reply to Glyph says:

          Actually, in Singapore, those of us who use propane tanks keep it under the stove/hob. How else do you use it to cook?Report

          • Avatar Kolohe in reply to Murali says:

            In the US, propane tanks for household use are about the size of a small car and thus, the tanks themselves are kept outside (and are a rural thing). Propane tanks for outdoor grilling are also kept outside (even home depot et al won’t let you take empty tanks inside the store when you exchange them)Report

        • Avatar Lyle in reply to Glyph says:

          Since one of the concerns about the casks is weathering, it should be noted that weathering happens more slowly in desert areas than in moist areas. Actually there is a nice comprimise, put solar arrays above the casks, using the arrays to shield the casks from at least some rain, and you have a double use for the land.
          Re Nevada, recall that except for Las Vegas and the Reno Carson city area Nevada is essentially empty. (much of the rest is essentially mining country with ex boom towns scattered around, because its acres per cow and insufficient water for irrigation in most of the state)Report

          • Avatar Glyph in reply to Lyle says:

            The solar arrays idea is nice (I’ve considered them on my roof for the same reason – your roof should last longer, and your house should be cooler) – but I assume the arrays need regular maint and repair, and the whole point of this is that we don’t really want people hanging around the casks too much…though maybe that can just be part of the periodic cask-integrity inspection?

            I thought Nevada was essentially agriculturally-empty too, but it seems they do produce SOME crops:

            http://agri.nv.gov/Administration/Administration/Agriculture_in_Nevada/Report

            • Avatar Lyle in reply to Glyph says:

              In particular NV tends to produce Ag near the rivers coming from the Sierra Nevada such as the Carson river, and some diversion from the Truckee river both to an area near Fallon. (Plus some along side channels from mountains). If the walls of the cask are a couple of feet thick, then it reduces the radiation, in particular given that a lot of the radiation is alpha and beta which a sheet of al foil will stop.
              Now I suspect the radiation at the solar panel level might not be much more than found in a nuclear plant today. In particular if one uses the model with mirrors reflecting sunlight to a central tower. In addition of course you could likley build a remote controlled robot to do the work.Report

              • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to Lyle says:

                This is one of the broad differences between being east or west of the Great Plains. To the west, reliable agriculture means water storage, management and distribution. It’s true even in western places people think of as wet. Portland is drier in July and August, on average, than Phoenix. Willamette Valley farm land with water rights is worth a lot more than similar land without the rights.Report

  9. Avatar Zac says:

    So we need to get rid of this stuff, and no state wants it? Solution: we bomb ISIS with it (specifically, we drop it on Dabiq). See, that wasn’t so hard. 😉Report

  10. Avatar Patrick says:

    I’ll finish with predictions and a plea. This will not be the last delay; Hanford will never be more than superficially cleaned up; a major spill will eventually happen. WIPP will be expanded, and continue to leak. Yucca Mountain will open against the wishes of the people of Nevada, be expanded, and somewhere 30 or 40 years down the line, will start to leak. The leaks will generally be due to human error — it’s really hard to out-engineer idiots. The cleanup problem(s) and some amount of the leakage problem will be due to cuts in the DOE budget. The leaders in opening Yucca Mountain and shorting the DOE budget will be Republicans from the South and Midwest: They represent areas that are desperate to get rid of spent fuel from their reactor fleet, and the Department of Energy budget is already a Republican target. Democrats from the Northeast will be complicit in opening Yucca Mountain because they also represent areas that want all of their spent fuel buried in someone else’s back yard. The West is going to get screwed again.

    The alternative.

    The alternative, as I understand it, is to wait until we have a spent rod pool at some nuclear power plant (that was never designed for long term on site storage of nuclear waste because the feds told everybody “we are working on a location to keep that stuff, it won’t stay on site”) have a failure scenario.

    We have a case of this right now in Japan. Sorta famous. Unfortunately, there are more than a few spent rod pools on site in areas that are seismically active, also a parallel. San Onofre was designed for an earthquake… but the on-site rod pools weren’t.

    I think that is a very important part of the equation.Report