Las Vegas Sun

November 20, 2017

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Science of Sci-Fi in storage plan?

State is contesting federal safeguards it calls pipe dreams

Sun Topics

Here is the federal government’s plan to keep Las Vegas safe from the radioactive waste it wants to store at Yucca Mountain:

• High-tech metal containers for the waste.

• Multibillion-dollar titanium shields to protect the containers from drips of corrosive water.

• Robots to install the shields 100 years from now.

Too bad none of those things exist, opponents say.

Arguments over these canisters, drip shields and robots are central to their case against the Energy Department’s application to turn the mountain, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, into the nation’s nuclear dump. They plan to file more than 200 legal objections, called contentions, today with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which is to decide whether to license the site.

Many of those contentions will focus on what opponents call the science fiction aspects of the dump.

“At the end of 100 years they are going to send an army of robots — think ‘I, Robot’ — marching down underneath Yucca Mountain to install yet-to-be-invented titanium shields,” Rep. Shelley Berkley said in an interview this week. “It’s hard to fathom anyone suggesting it, let alone the secretary of energy.”

Deputy Attorney General Marta Adams said the state will also file contentions over the mountain’s ability to isolate nuclear waste from the outside world. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which designates Yucca Mountain as the nation’s prime site for storing such waste, says the mountain’s geology must provide part of the barrier between the waste and the world, Adams says.

“All the advocates say (the mountain) has been studied more than any other piece of real estate anywhere, but what the studies show is that the mountain can’t do what Congress said it must do,” she said this week. “No amount of fancy-schmancy drip shields are going to fix that.”

Adams said the drip shields are necessary to protect canisters filled with waste from highly corrosive water dripping from the roof of the tunnel in which the canisters will be buried. But the Energy Department doesn’t plan to install the shields until it permanently closes the repository 100 or so years from now.

And because the shields will be made of titanium worth an estimated $8 billion to $10 billion in today’s dollars, Bob Loux, the longtime director of Nevada’s Nuclear Projects Agency, questions whether they’ll ever be installed.

In 100 years, the mountain will be 120 degrees or more inside, according to the Energy Department’s license application, and too radioactive for human workers. That’s why remote-controlled robots will install the shields.

“The whole plan is illogical,” he said. “All this depends on systems that haven’t been built yet, on ideal tunnel conditions, on being able to seal the (drip shields) together with a seam so tight that no water can get through. And then they’ll be installed with robots that haven’t been invented. It’s fantasy.”

Rod McCullum, the Nuclear Energy Institute’s Yucca Mountain project director, says there’s nothing science fiction about the plan.

The shields really aren’t that complex — they’re like huts made of metal.

“Everything’s made out of titanium these days,” he said, offering golf clubs as an example.

And remote-controlled robots are hardly a thing of fantasy, he said, pointing out that Nellis Air Force Base bombers fly remote-controlled planes in Iraq from the safety of Las Vegas.

Besides, the shields might not even be necessary. They’re more like a precaution, he said. An analysis by the Electric Power Research Institute concluded that even without the shields, the canisters won’t release unsafe levels of radioactivity from the mountain, McCullum said.

“Analysis shows that most of the waste packages would be around for thousands of years out there,” he said, comparing them to ancient cave paintings that have survived without titanium or robots or canisters of any kind.

The Energy Department “either has to install (the shields) before they can close (the repository) or demonstrate that they are not necessary,” McCullum said. “It’s possible you could still have a safe repository without the drip shields.”

But that’s the scenario Yucca Mountain opponents fear most.

“Who is going to be around 100 or 300 years from now to force (the Energy Department) to install them?” Loux said. “Is there going to be a Congress around that is going to be able to appropriate that kind of money? Once the repository is filled and sitting there and everyone assumes it’s working OK, is Congress going to step up to the plate and appropriate $28 billion to $38 billion more?”

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