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Common Objections to the Yucca Mountain Project, and What the Science Really Says

The following are the most frequently cited objections to the Yucca Mountain project and the response based on scientific analysis.

Scientific bias
Concern: DOE skews its scientific results to make the repository look OK.

Answer:

  • An independent Inspector General's investigation, completed in April 2001, found no evidence of pro-repository bias in DOE's scientific program.
  • The DOE science is the product 1000's of respected scientists representing dozens of reputable organizations, all of whom build their careers on professional credibility.
  • DOE's scientific methods are backed by strong international consensus.
  • DOE has taken a conservative approach in areas of scientific uncertainty (where large uncertainties exist scientists typically choose assumptions that are less favorable to repository performance).
  • DOE’s scientific results have been subjected to and withstood critical review from organizations such as the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board.  The final test of these results will be the intensive 3 to 4 year public review that must be conducted by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission before any license to operate the facility can be issued.

Upwelling of groundwater
Concern: Geothermal processes could force up the water table from 1000' below the repository to flood the waste emplacement area.

Answer:

  • Multiple studies have completely debunked this theory:
    • National Academy of Sciences
    • University of Nevada at Las Vegas
    • Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board
    • U.S. Geologic Service
    • Virginia Polytechnic University.

Corrosion
Concern: Water will degrade the waste package containers.

Answer:

  • Very little water falls on Yucca Mountain and most of what does runs off (does not seep into the mountain). Scientists have done extensive work to model how very small amounts of water may infiltrate the repository and have designed corrosion resistant containers made of advanced Alloy C-22 covered by Titanium drip shields to protect the waste against any seepage that may occur.
  • Studies conducted to date confirm the corrosion resistance of Alloy C-22.
  • Alloy C-22 is more corrosion resistant than other materials (it has evolved from of 103 years of experience with Ni-Cr alloys developed to combat corrosion).
  • Natural analogues—objects not protected by advanced materials—have survived 1000's of years in the environment under similar or even less favorable conditions.
  • Confirmatory research to be conducted over the 100+ years before repository closure will either verify theories about the longevity of Alloy C-22 or provide opportunity for necessary modifications in repository design.
  • Nevada sponsored studies showing C-22 corrosion under extreme conditions did not accurately model the repository environment.
  • The Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board concluded in 2004 that the environmental conditions necessary to cause corrosion of C-22 were "unlikely" to occur inside the repository.

Earthquakes
Concern: It is not safe to bury nuclear waste in a seismically active area.

Answer:

  • The seismicity of Yucca Mountain is well known and understood.
  • Repository surface and operational facilities will be designed to withstand worst case earthquakes.
  • The occurrence of earthquakes has been considered in repository design and long term performance assessments. The waste containers themselves will be designed to withstand worst case earthquakes and DOE's analysis already assumes that falling rocks will contribute to the long term degradation of the containers.
  • The repository layout will avoid well characterized fault lines.
  • Earthquakes release most of their destructive force at the surface, earthquakes strong enough to cause damage in the scientific trailers currently on the surface have gone unnoticed by workers in the tunnels.

Volcanoes (igneous activity)
Concern: A volcano could erupt through the repository.

Answer:

  • A volcanic eruption that affects the repository is a highly improbable event.
  • There has not been a single volcanic eruption through Yucca Mountain in 10 million years.
  • Millions of years of history shows that the region surrounding Yucca Mountain is becoming less volcanically active with time.
  • Nevertheless, NRC is requiring that DOE analyze the consequences of such an event and include this analysis in the repository performance assessment.
  • Volcano itself likely to cause more harm than any radiation it might release.

Leaky mountain
Concern: Evidence of Cl-36 from nuclear weapons testing suggests that radioactive molecules will leak rapidly out of Yucca Mountain.

Answer:

  • Evidence of possible Cl-36 (less than 50 years old) does not invalidate DOE's performance assessment:
    • DOE is already conservatively assuming fast pathways in its analysis.
    • Small quantities of one radioactive element are not indicative of the transport characteristics of all radioactive elements.
    • Cl-36 is not a major contributor to repository radiological performance.
    • Typical radioactive element travel time through the mountain is on the order of 1000's of years (even with fast pathways).
    • The validity of the Cl-36 data is in dispute.

Transportation is too risky
Concern: Moving used fuel along road & rail threatens millions of homes.

Answer:

  • Used nuclear fuel transportation has a well established safety record (1000's of shipments have already been conducted world-wide without any radiation impact on public health and safety).
  • Used nuclear fuel transportation is carried out with numerous precautions and is heavily regulated.
  • Used nuclear fuel shipping containers are designed to withstand severe accidents.
  • Highly improbable (non-credible) accident release scenarios have been analyzed and can be mitigated, emergency responders will be prepared if they happen.

Human intrusion
Concern: Future residents of Yucca Mountain may inadvertently drill or mine into the repository.

Answer:

  • It is difficult to believe that future populations will lose knowledge of or ability to detect the repository yet retain the technology to drill through and/or mine into it.
  • Even if this was credible, high ground in a resource barren area is an unlikely drilling/mining location.
  • Nevertheless, NRC will require DOE to evaluate a human intrusion scenario and demonstrate that potential radiological consequences to the public would be within regulatory safety limits.

DOE is engineering their way around a bad site
Concern: DOE is getting all of its performance from miracle metals (C-22, titanium) because the geology isn't working for them.

Answer:

  • No other nation has a site as dry, stable, & remote as Yucca.
  • Engineered barriers perform so well partly because they are being emplaced in dry stable rock.
  • DOE's performance assessment intentionally underestimates the capability of the site's natural features:
    • Provides margin of safety (conservatism).
    • Forces over-design of the engineered system (defense in depth).
    • Facilitates licensing (NRC processes are more familiar with engineering information).

Climate change
Concern: Yucca will not be as dry 1000's of years in the future as it is today.

Answer:

  • Past climate change patterns have been evaluated, if Yucca gets wetter, it won't get that much wetter.
  • DOE conservatively assumes a wetter climate in its performance assessment.

Surface flooding
Concern: Flash floods could inundate the surface facilities during repository operations, causing release of radioactive materials.

Answer:

  • The surface facilities will be designed to withstand worst case floods.
  • Transportation and storage casks are already designed to withstand submersion in water.
  • The reason Nevada has such flooding whenever it rains, is that the ground does not absorb water well. Ground that doesn't like to absorb water is a good thing to have above a repository.

Site is not large enough
Concern: The nuclear waste storage facility at Yucca Mountain as planned is not large enough to store all off the used nuclear fuel and defense-related waste that has been and is being produced.

Answer:

  • The capacity of a repository at the Yucca Mountain site has been determined politically, not scientifically. Congress limited the capacity of the Yucca Mountain repository to 70,000 metric tons of heavy metal or equivalent in the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act.
  • As of 2002, there is about 44,000 metric tons of commercial used nuclear fuel and about 12,000 metric tons of defense high-level radioactive waste awaiting disposal at Yucca Mountain. An additional 2,000 metric tons is generated each year. Given that DOE expects to begin receiving up to 3,000 metric tons a year of used fuel beginning in 2010, the 70,000 metric ton political limit will not be reached until at least 2036.
  • Scientific analysis demonstrates that the Yucca Mountain site is physically capable of holding much more used fuel. DOE's Environmental Impact Statement showed that the site could safely dispose of 120,000 metric tons. Some scientists believe that repository capacity could be as high as 200,000 metric tons.
  • Congress has plenty of time to decide whether it wants to authorize a second repository or increase the capacity at Yucca Mountain.  The Nuclear Waste Policy Act directed DOE to report to Congress between 2007 and 2010 on the need for a second national repository.

Zero tolerance for radiation
Concern: Even a single millirem of additional radiation is immoral.

Answer:

  • Every day radiation is used for the benefit of humanity, including the detection and treatment of disease, and the production of 20 percent of our nation's electricity to maintain a high standard of living and quality of life.
  • Natural radiation has always been a part of our environment in which all living things have evolved and trive. There is no difference between man-made and natural radiation. 
  • Over 20 years of scientific study and engineering analysis ensure that the Yucca Mountain repository will protect the public health and safety.
  • Based on DOE calculations, an individual living at Yucca Mountain 10,000 years in the future will receive an annual radiation dose less than what he or she would receive from eating a single banana a year.

 

 

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