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August 4, 2015

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Letter to the editor:

Yucca hype doesn’t match facts

In his letter, “Give nuclear storage a fair look,” Tom Keller claims that he has yet to see any valid scientific and economic conclusions that warrant killing the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste project. Somewhere he picked up the notion that spent fuel and associated fission products won’t be mobilized by groundwater. Well, the power of propaganda is impressive and had much to do with the scientific merits of the proposed repository.

It began with the Energy Department’s notion in 1982 that the site was “dry” with a deep water table and therefore ideal for disposal of 77,000 metric tons of high-level nuclear waste.

The trouble encountered, however, was that host rock pores were about 95 percent saturated, and also full of fractures and faults (unsaturated). As characterization studies progressed, the DOE encountered a fatal problem. The site also wouldn’t meet site selection and licensing criteria that both the DOE and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission had agreed to. The groundwater travel time criterion, the most fundamental test, couldn’t be met. The DOE’s Plan B was to just keep going until it could convince the NRC to change the licensing criteria (about 20 years after initially agreed to and adopted). The new licensing criteria allowed the engineered barriers to be a primary containment factor. This was highly convenient; nobody can forecast how well engineered barriers will work at geologic time scales. Then, if one hides the engineered barrier performance in a hugely complex modeling analysis, few if any can fully understand what was actually plugged into the black box.

So it is not too surprising Tom Keller hasn’t seen much scientific evidence but probably has seen plenty of hype as to the economic benefits.

The author was a consultant on the Yucca Mountain project for the NRC, the state of Nevada and several counties.

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