The American program to dispose of spent nuclear fuel and other highly radioactive wastes is at a standstill for a variety of reasons. First-of-a-kind efforts tend to be technologically difficult, but the real problems are not hardware issues, according to a new book, “Too Hot to Touch: The Problem of High-Level Nuclear Waste.”
“The technical characteristics of nuclear waste make the disposal problem difficult, yet it is the human factors that have made it intractable,’’ the authors, William M. and Rosemarie Alley, a husband-and-wife team, write.
Those include “unrealistic demands for earth-science predictions far into the future, eroding confidence in government and institutions, confusion about which ‘experts’ to trust, and the ever-present NIMS [not-in-my-state] and Nimby,’’ they report.
Since the Obama administration killed a plan to build a repository at Yucca Mountain in the Nevada desert, some supporters of nuclear power have fallen back on a rather simple view of the problem: if politics had not killed Yucca, it would be well on its way today towards operation.
The Alleys, however, take a more subtle approach. For the site to be licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, they write, it had to be assured that the repository would fully contain the radioactive material and not deliver a significant radioactive dose to anybody for “time periods beyond our wildest imagination’’ — even the next million years.
“It was still anyone’s guess if Yucca Mountain would meet the stringent tests that would allow it to become a fully licensed and operating repository,’’ they write.
The spread of nuclear waste is a little bit like the flow of hot wax down the side of a candle on the dinner table; the question is not so much whether it will drip as whether it will stop before damaging the tablecloth.
For Yucca, a volcanic structure, and other kinds of rock that have been investigated as potential storage sites, one big question is whether the waste will move fast enough, driven mostly by underground flows of water, to reach the human environment before it becomes harmless through the simple process of radioactive decay.
That depends heavily on chemical and mechanical interactions of the waste and the surrounding materials.
The Alleys provide something of a history of the sciences of geochemistry, nuclear physics and climate. Understanding the climate of past epochs is essential…