The Department of Energy is preparing to submit an application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a license to store radioactive waste in Yucca Mountain, Nevada, under a plan endorsed by John McCain.
The word “mountain” has lovely connotations: icy streams, conifer forests, unblemished views of a snowy sierra, yodeling competitions. (OK, so not they’re not all lovely.) Alas for Yucca Mountain, these images of alpine sweetness do not apply to it at all. If Yucca Mountain had a name that conveyed just how baking-hot, barren, forlorn, and lifeless it is — perhaps “Yucca Death Vault” would do it justice — more people might see the logic in the government’s plan, now nearly thirty years old, to use it to store the nation’s radioactive garbage. The mountain is dry, geologically appropriate, and far enough from human settlements to keep it secure in case of accident or attack. Nevadans and anti-nuke activists object and say that the risk of leaks, of terrorist attacks, and of unforeseen catastrophes is too great to allow Yucca Mountain to accept the waste. But the waste has to go somewhere, and Yucca Mountain is the right spot.
The alternative, first of all, is to keep the waste at the nuclear plants that produce it. Yucca Mountain is equipped to accept 77,000 tons of radioactive waste, which are currently distributed all over the country, often in areas near population centers. Few if any of the current nuclear plants could provide the security of a mountain in the middle of the country’s most inhospitable and militarized desert.
Scientists, engineers, politicians, and lawyers have bickered for decades about whether Yucca is seismically inert enough to ensure millennia of safe storage. I don’t blame skeptics for doubting. Storage beyond the scale of individual human lives, to say nothing of human history, is tricky and bound to pose risks, such as slow bleeds of radioactive waste into the ground or water. The good news is that the worst of the waste will have decayed significantly within centuries, and the scariest parts of what’s left — plutonium, which takes 24,000 years to decay by half — can be kept out of deep storage and instead reprocessed to power more reactors (or build bombs, about which more below). Now that storage and fossil-fuel costs are skyrocketing, this sort of reprocessing will make increasing economic sense, thereby reducing the period during which Yucca Mountain would have to be certified secure.
Finally, the subject of bombs: The most ridiculous fears surround the possibility that someone would seize any stored plutonium and use it build a bomb. Let’s assume a dramatic raid of Yucca Mountain actually did occur, and somehow the folks next door at Nellis Air Force Base were powerless to stop it. The terrorists would then have loads of fission fragments, plus a large quantity of the same material used to incinerate Nagasaki. That improbable outcome would not be good, but it wouldn’t be terrible, because contrary to its reputation, plutonium is neither all that dangerous nor all that difficult to get. It’s not available, as Dr. Emmett Brown predicted over half a century ago, “in every corner drugstore,” but nuclear power plants routinely produce the stuff as a waste product, and at last count there were nuclear plants all over the world, mostly not in the U.S. The trick isn’t getting the plutonium, but turning it into a bomb. (Enriched uranium is the opposite — hard to find, easy to blow up.)
Yucca Mountain won’t avert all catastrophes — whether of the bang or the whimper variety. But it will be better than the status quo.
Originally appeared at TheAtlantic.com