Dump Yucca Mountain nuclear disposal plan

There is no more tempting solution to a problem than digging a hole and burying it. But buried problems tend not to remain that way, and President George W. Bush’s plan to sweep the nation’s nuclear waste under the Nevada desert will further illustrate this unless Congress has the vision to stop it.

The president announced last month his decision to build a permanent nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain. Members of Congress, among them Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone (D), have ceaselessly pointed out the flaws in the Yucca proposal. Their criticisms are now more necessary than ever, and they deserve public support as they push for a better nuclear waste policy.

Burying nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain is the worst of the available waste disposal options. The proposed site sits atop 32 earthquake fault lines, is close to young volcanoes and is subject to flooding when, as many scientists predict, its presently low water table rises. Radioactive waste would be transported to Nevada from across the country via highways and railroads, tempting fate, terrorists and pranksters with the opportunity to wreak havoc with thousands of tons of nuclear material. Even if the waste could be moved safely, no policy-maker has yet devised a plan for guaranteeing the Yucca facility’s maintenance and safety for the next 10,000 years – nearly twice the length of recorded human history.

Scientists have been developing more promising and productive approaches to the nuclear waste problem for decades. Now is the time for Wellstone and other congressional leaders to insist those plans finally be given serious policy consideration.

Perhaps chief among these is the Integral Fast Reactor, a new breed of power plant designed to process spent nuclear fuel rods with nearly 100 percent efficiency (compared with a light-water reactor’s 1 percent) and passive safety systems that make the operator error and techncial failure of Chernobyl and Three Mile Island relics of the past. For the same cost as a conventional coal plant, the IFR can burn nuclear waste in a process incapable of isolating weapons-grade materials, reducing both the storage problem and proliferation risk waste presents. Former President Bill Clinton eliminated the IFR’s funding in a failed attempt to turn the rest of the world away from any nuclear power use, and the time is ripe for Congress to reconsider that decision.

Another promising, albeit untested, option is putting nuclear waste into the subduction zones below the earth’s surface, possibly through dormant volcanoes, and allowing the earth’s crust to seal it away for thousands of years – beyond the reach of terrorists and diffused so much that even a small amount ejected from a volcano would be harmless.

More immediately important than any one technology’s merits, however, is Congress’ ability to muster its policy courage and tell the president the mere existence of such alternatives means the hopelessly flawed Yucca plan should be permanently sealed away.