The problem is that you can’t dispose of nuclear waste, you can only store it safely. For the purpose of keeping casks intact, the geology in Yucca Mountain is favorable (or was once believed to be so). The region is extremely dry, so that water is unlikely to corrode and break through the cask, and if it did leak it would not go very far because there are no surrounding water ways to carry and spread the waste.
Further studies, however, have cast doubt on the suitability of the site for the long-term (what they call “permanent”) storage of nuclear waste. And just so you know, the Obama administration officially pulled the plug on all further funding for the site in 2009, so the fate of the facility is currently in question.
The reason Yucca was used as the waste respository was of its rock composition. A long, long time ago, a volcano erutpted and the rapidly cooling magma welded onto either itself or to the rocks already there. The new rock (welded tuff) is extremely durable and will not allow water to seep through, making it a good place to store waste.
The site’s future is in question as the decision to shut down the site has been brought back to the courts as of late 2010.
I find it troubling that our political leaders continue to promote nuclear energy without seeking a satisfactory solution to one of its largest outstanding problems, namely the unresolved nuclear waste disposal crisis. Yucca Mountain may be the least bad of a set of bad choices, or it may indeed be unsuitable for the purpose for which it has been designated as critics of the project have charged.
As of this writing, all plans for a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain have been cancelled, and no further work is planned, with some $20 billion in federal subsidies already sunk into the facility. Once nuclear waste has been created, there is no way to make it disappear for good, so the only options are to store it as safely as possible and to recycle it in reprocessing facilities. I don’t know enough about reprocessing to say for certain whether it is a good idea or not, but critics have pointed out once again the poor economics of building these facilities, a problem that seems endemic to the nuclear industry as a whole. Either way, reprocessing waste does not make the problem of ultimate disposal disappear, and any sane and mature energy policy would necessarily include end-of-life measures for the existing U.S. fleet of nuclear plants.
My thinking is mainly that we should avoid creating any more nuclear waste, at least unless and until we have figured out how to handle the stuff.
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