Paper on Nuclear Waste Management for presentation to a Greenpeace Briefing

Quale Futuro per le Scorie Nucleari Italiene?
December 2, 2003

by Arjun Makhijani, Ph.D.

My name is Arjun Makhijani. I am president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research in Takoma Park, Maryland, which is a suburb of Washington, D.C. I have studied the problems of nuclear waste management for well over two decades and have authored or co-authored many reports and books on nuclear-related questions. I have served on several U.S. governmental committees on scientific and regulatory issues related to radioactive waste management, including one relating to the proposed repository at Yucca Mountain. I obtained my Ph.D. in 1972 from the Electrical Engineering Department of the University of California, where I specialized in controlled nuclear fusion.

The management of nuclear waste, and especially spent fuel from nuclear power plants, is one of the most vexing, contentious, difficult, and costly issues of our time. The waste contains materials that will remain environmentally threatening for a million years or more, creating scientific and policy challenges that are unprecedented in human history. The nuclear proliferation challenges are equally more immense. The problem of how to prevent future intrusion and recovery of plutonium for periods that are unimaginably vast compared to the history of any human institution has not been properly addressed, much less resolved.

After considerable study, I have concluded that science and technology have no satisfactory solution to offer for the most serious issues raised by long-lived, high-level radioactive waste. For some time, I thought that transmutation, turning long-lived elements into shorter-lived ones, which is theoretically possible in physics, might provide an answer. But a careful study led me to conclude that transmutation will aggravate the problems of proliferation and environment, rather than reduce them. And even the proponents of this approach do not deny that the residual waste will require disposal in a deep geologic repository.

Stopping the production of long-lived waste and plutonium is an essential first step in addressing the problem of waste management. [1] Italy is to be congratulated for its decision to phase out nuclear power and to end the production of spent fuel and plutonium. Second, I have concluded that secure hardened on-site storage for a few decades and disposal in a properly engineered deep geologic location is the most likely of a menu of poor solutions to minimize risks to future generations.

I address you, therefore, not as an opponent of repository programs, but as someone who advocates a sound, scientific process of creating engineered barriers, selecting a repository location, and building a deep geologic disposal system to very strict standards. As I will explain below, such a process is likely to take about four decades; it will require a variety of investigations. In the meantime, Italy must resist pressures to restart its nuclear power program. There are far better solutions to the problem of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Further, generating more waste creates a situation in which politicized decisions and poor science are far more likely. I will illustrate this conclusion using the example of the U.S. Yucca Mountain program, which I understand has been held up as a model for Italy to follow. I hope you will not do that, because in my view, Yucca Mountain is the worst single site that has been investigated in the United States.

The present U.S. repository program dates back to the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act. Nine sites in the West were named. They were to be studied and compared. A site in the East was to be selected from among many sites that were to be announced in the future. Two repositories were to be built: one in the East, one in the West. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) published its technical standards for performance of engineered barriers and the repository in the mid-1980s. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published its final rule regarding environmental protection from deep geologic disposal in 1989 based on work that had commenced many years before.

When the list of possible Eastern sites was published in January 1986, the states named included New Hampshire, a crucial state in U.S. presidential politics. In the spring of 1986, a delegation of citizens from New Hampshire and nearby Maine visited the White House to explain the difficulties that the selection of the site would create for any presidential candidate. At the time, then-Vice-President Bush, the father of the present President, had aspirations to become president. The search for an eastern site was mysteriously suspended two weeks after this White House visit. In 1987, Congress passed a law abandoning comparative evaluation of sites. It decreed that characterization be restricted to a single site — Yucca Mountain, Nevada. At the time, Nevada’s representation in Congress happened to be relatively lacking in influence and its role in presidential politics was marginal relative to many other places.

Congress took the action to name Yucca Mountain as the sole site, despite the fact that a 1983 study on geologic isolation done by the U.S. National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences indicated that it was the worst site from the point of view of possible future radiation doses. Since there is no surface water in the region and since groundwater is scarce, the erosion of the containers at Yucca Mountain was estimated to yield high radiation doses, far in excess of any prevalent radiation protection standards. But the Department of Energy, which is in the business of making nuclear weapons and doing nuclear power research as well as managing the repository program, did not call the attention of Congress to this problem. The omission was all the more significant because the 1983 study was financed by the Department of Energy.

In the early 1990s, some scientists began to suspect that Yucca Mountain may not meet the published EPA standard for emission of carbon-14 from geologic repositories. I was part of an official EPA scientific committee appointed to examine this issue. The committee had independent scientists as well as scientists from government and the nuclear industry. We concluded unanimously that it was possible that Yucca Mountain would not meet the carbon-14 standard, but that there were other types of repositories that would likely meet it. But by 1994, when our report was published, political pressures to continue with Yucca Mountain had become too great. Instead of abandoning Yucca Mountain, Congress legislated that existing geologic repository standards would not apply to Yucca Mountain, and that a new standard would be created specially for Yucca Mountain. I have called this the “double standard standard.”

Around the mid-1990s, it began to become clear that the geology of Yucca Mountain could not be relied on to significantly retard the movement of waste and prevent it from reaching groundwater. In that case, Yucca Mountain could not meet the engineering performance standards set by the NRC in the mid-1980s. Again, those standards were changed in a way that would be convenient for declaring Yucca Mountain a suitable site.

Today, the NRC requires what is called a “Total System Performance Assessment.” It places no requirement that the elements within the disposal system have minimum standards of performance. Moreover the performance assessment relies on a complex computer program that uses many parameters that can be easily adjusted to yield a variety of performance results. Some of these parameters have little foundation in suitable sets of solid data. The calculation procedure that has been allowed in this assessment tends to encourage arbitrariness in performance assessment.

It turns out the Yucca Mountain would still be projected to pollute groundwater considerably above safe drinking water standards. Therefore the new EPA rules that have been issued for the site give an exemption from safe drinking water standards for the entire portion of the area that is on federally controlled land. (I must point out in this context, if only in passing, that the land upon which Yucca Mountain is situated has been claimed by the Western Shoshone Indians as their own. As is common, the legal history is tangled and contains considerable injustice to the Western Shoshone people.)

And how will the Yucca Mountain site perform? The Department of Energy’s own calculations show that the geologic setting will be practically useless in providing radionuclide containment. IEER has published these graphs in its newsletter, of which Ms. Gunter has brought copies for you. Almost the entire function of containment is estimated to be performed by large nickel-alloy metal canisters in which the spent fuel and military high level waste is to be emplaced. However, the performance of this metal canister has vast uncertainties and is the subject of considerable controversy, even as this late stage, after almost $10 billion have been spent on the repository program over the last two decades.

The alloy from which the canisters are to be made is new – there are only a few years of laboratory data on corrosion. They indicate that the canister may corrode very fast or very slow depending on future climatic conditions and other factors such as how densely packed the waste will be. The basic problem is that the rock at Yucca Mountain is porous volcanic tuff and the pores contain air and small amounts of moisture. Heat, oxygen, and moisture are conducive to corrosion of metals. Despite this basic fact of chemistry, the Department of Energy has persisted with a metal canister, instead of taking the time to design and test a ceramic canister. I suspect that the pressures to accept waste and dispose it of at the repository are simply too great.

The process for Characterizing Yucca Mountain has, over the last decade and a half become characterized by a kind of politics that is, in my opinion, emblematic of a disregard for future generations. Other water resources than those in Nevada may now being compromised as a result of this poor process. In the 1980s, the amount of power plant waste was estimated to be 70,000 metric tons, the government set that as the upper limit for waste be disposed of at Yucca Mountain. The waste was to include high-level military waste from plutonium separation now stored in tanks at Savannah River Site, South Carolina and Hanford, Washington. Of the 228 tanks, some of which are as large as five million liters, about 75 are suspected to have leaked.

Today, under pressure from industry, reactor licenses are being extended by 20 years. This will considerably increase the amount of waste from present reactors, probably to over 100,000 metric tons. Then there are also the new nuclear power plants that the Bush administration wants to subsidize. (The pending energy bill contains subsidies for up to eight new nuclear plants). In parallel, over the last few years, the Department of Energy has begun exploring ways to abandon most of its commitments to dispose of military high-level waste at Yucca Mountain. There is unlikely to be enough room for all high-level commercial and military waste at Yucca Mountain. Space is limited; the site is riddled with seismic faults. Unless the people of the United States resist present policies and work to change them, it is quite possible that a substantial amount of military highly radioactive and plutonium-containing wastes may be abandoned near or above some of the most important water resources in the United States – the Columbia River and the Snake River Plain Aquifer in the West and the Savannah River in the Southeast. I believe that such a dangerous outcome would be one result of a shoddy repository program.

I want to congratulate the people the people of Scanzano Jonico and the region of Basilicata because their resistance has given Italy the opportunity to completely revamp its nuclear waste management program, including its repository program, and show the world how to responsibly approach this very difficult issue. The most important part of this decision must be to continue the policy of no more nuclear power. An abandonment of this policy to allow for new nuclear plants would create a conflict of interest between waste production and long-term waste management that is likely to compromise a repository program.

In addition, a sound waste management program would have the following features:

  • A special nuclear waste agency that has no conflicts of interest in waste production of any kind.
  • Hardened on-site dry storage of spent fuel that would be satisfactory for several decades.
  • Ten to twenty years of basic research during which there would be no consideration of any sites. During this time, the program would consist of theoretical, laboratory, and field research to (i) study various rock types, such as granite, clay, and salt, (ii) understand the natural conditions in each of these rock types under which naturally occurring radioactive materials like uranium do not migrate, (iii) learn to create and test artificial materials that would mimic natural materials that retard the movement of radionuclides for millions of years in specific geologic settings, (iv) create criteria and standards that would make a repository program robust in the face of large uncertainties and that would allow for failures of human institutions that will surely occur on the time scales of hundreds of thousands of years for which the wastes will remain a problem to human society.
  • A program of research, development and testing of canisters for transportation that would address the difficult issues of transportation accidents, as well as transfer of wastes from one type of container to another.
  • A democratic and scientific site selection process that incorporates both sound science and common sense. For instance, current approaches tend to be biased by urban thinking. This is a problem because people who have lived all their lives in cities and purchased their food in grocery stores tend more easily to forget that food comes from rural areas. A bias in favor of siting in rural areas has therefore resulted. Siting criteria have not, in my opinion, given adequate consideration either to food production and agricultural water use, or to the fact that security may be more rather than less of a problem in sparsely populated areas when institutional controls fail as they are essentially certain to do in the long times involved. For instance, Yucca Mountain is often described in policy-making circles in Washington as an unpopulated desert area. Yet cattle graze less than 20 kilometers from the site and a major agricultural production area from where agricultural products are exported to other parts of the United States and also abroad lies about 30 kilometers away. Farmers there use water from the same aquifer that is under Yucca Mountain. (It is perhaps an ironic fact that one of the areas that the National Research Council recommended in 1983 as suitable for investigation is only roughly fifty kilometers from the headquarters of the U.S. Department of Energy in Washington, D.C. The U.S. Department of Energy has completely ignored this advice.)
  • A program of development of technology that is oriented to one site.

I estimate that this sound process is likely to take about four decades, if pursued vigorously. This is not a long period of time compared to the time period for which we are trying to protect future generations. It will not create a perfect result, but one which will at least have a chance of minimizing the risk as much as is possible for us to do. Indeed, four decades is not a long time compared to the many problems and delays that have plagued politicized nuclear waste programs throughout the world. Yucca Mountain will have taken nearly that much time, even it its proponents are successful in licensing and opening it.

I want to congratulate you for abandoning the hastily selected site at Scanzano Jonico. I want even more strongly to urge you not to adopt a rushed process to name a new site. Eighteen months is not a realistic time in which to do a good job. It is likely to result in the same frustrated failure. Simply naming a site or rushing into site selection is likely to lead to serial failure or the disposal of waste in a manner that is not responsible to future generations.

Please take the time to do this well. It is not only the right thing to do for future generations, but may also turn out to cost less. And please hold on to your decision not to build any more nuclear power plants.


  1. I exclude the question of medical waste from my testimony because, for the most part, medical waste contains mostly short-level radionuclides or longer-lived radionuclides that can be recovered for re-use. The other long-level radionuclides in medical waste are very minor compared to nuclear power plant and nuclear weapon related waste and should not pose significant additional difficulty in management in the context of a sound repository program. ↩ Return