- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 7, 2001

Last of two parts.


When was the last time you bought a product guaranteed to last until 12001? And how would you get a refund if it didnt?
As noted in yesterdays article, high-level nuclear reactor waste will remain harmful to humans for eons, and so a repository holding it needs to be untouchable and unharmful to even potential Indiana Joneses thousands of years from now. Over the past two decades, 2,000 scientists have spent 20 years and $2 billion attempting to determine if Yucca Mountain is just such a site.
Specifically, according to the administrations just-released health and safety standards, the repository is allowed to give off no more than 15 millirems, less than 5 percent of natural background radiation, per year. Can that standard be met at Yucca?
The answer is an empathetic neon-blinking spotlight-blinding jackpot-winning "yes." thanks to Yucca Moutains unique mix of geological and geographical features, not to mention the man-made barriers that will be engineered into the repository.
Jim Niggemyer, a project mining engineer called Yucca Mountain one of the best-studied hunks of rock on the planet, and hes probably right. Certainly its contours have been more thoroughly (and more expensively) studied than that of any Vegas showgirl. Practically every -ologist worth a science Ph.d. has studied the place, including geologists, seismologists volcanologists, climatologists, and even hydrologists.
Aside from its potential use as a repository (and the fact it is probably the only place in Nevada without a slot machine), it is hard to imagine why anyone would want to go near the place. Yucca Mountain is an undistinguished basaltic ridge covered with sand and scrubrush located in the middle of the Amargosa Desert. It is so isolated that it is easy to imagine even Willie E. Coyote attempting to hitchhike away. He would probably have his tongue hanging out too, since the area only receives about 7 inches of rain each year.
In fact, its more likely he would have an another anvil drop on his head out of the clear blue than that he will see anyone since the nearest settlement, Amargosa Valley, is nearly 20 miles away. Nor are settlements likely to move any closer, since, like nearly 90 percent of the land in Nevada, Yucca Mountain and the area surrounding it are owned by the government. Nor would anyone want to move much closer, since the potential repository is not too far from where nuclear devices (bombs), once were tested.
Yucca Mountain was formed from another cataclysmic event a titanic series of eruptions that rocked the region about 12 million years ago. Since then, things have calmed down a bit. A few volcanoes dot the region and minor earthquakes rock the region just as infrequently as good taste is displayed on the Las Vegas Strip. Scientists believe there is an extremely low chance of volcanic action erupting in the area any time soon, and engineers are confident they can build the repository to withstand any possible ground-shaking event.
In fact, water is the most likely candidate to ruin the repository, even though less than 5 percent of the precipitation that falls on the area will actually percolate into the mountain. Eventually, scientists foresee, water will drip into the repository, rust through the extensive shielding surrounding the waste containers, and then, laden with radioactive particles, eventually make its way down into the water table and thence out into the ecosystem where biologicals can get at it.
The repository at Yucca is being designed with just such a possibility in mind. On average, less than 5 percent of the pittance of precipitation that falls on the area actually makes it into the mountain. The water that does has to percolate through 2,600 feet of rock, nearly one-half mile, before it falls into the water table, a process that can take thousands of years, and perhaps even longer, since heat escaping from the waste storage containers will shunt water away from the area.
As planned, the repository will consist as a series of 18-foot diameter horizontal shafts set almost a football field apart running roughly perpendicular to the ridgeline, bored into a dense layer of rock running roughly half-way between the top of the ridge and the water table. Waste packages will be sandwiched by a titanium drip shield above and a drip invert below.
The packages themselves will be cylindrical sandwiches of material more unbreakable (and die-harder) than Bruce Willis. The outer layer is set to be built of inch-thick hyper-corrosion resistant Alloy 22, which will in turn protect the inner layer, 2-inch-thick stainless steel.
The design will allow safe storage of at least 70,000 metric tons of reactor waste 50 years of nuclear power. "Safe" may be a bit of an understatement, since no radiation is expected to escape from the repository for 10,000 years, according to Richard Craun, a Senior Policy Advisor of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management. DOE estimates that maximum radiation exposure from the repository will come about 300,000 years in the future, at which point a few people in Amargosa Valley (if, at that point, there still is a "valley" and "people" are still there) may experience somewhat higher than average doses of radiation.
Building the modern equivalent of a sphinx with radiation storage capacity wont be cheap, but the entire project has already cost between $5 billion and $6 billion. Besides, if, as Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, says, the waste should not be stored at Yucca Mountain, then where? Short-term storage is continuing to build into a nightmarish NIMBY ("not in my back yard") problem at more than 100 sites across the nation, and high-level reactor waste needs to go somewhere safe and secure, sooner rather than later.
The repository at Yucca Mountain may not be the perfect solution, but its the best by a long shot. You can bet the house on it for 10,000 years.

Charles Rousseaux is an editor for the Commentary pages of The Washington Times.

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