The narrow road that leads to America’s most expensive and controversial public works project turns off US Highway 95, some 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada, just past a huge sign that depicts a space alien and the legend: “Yucca Mountain Travel Centre. Last Service Before Area 51.” Despite the presence of a gas station built to resemble a Wild West fort, the service is provided by Cherry Patch 2, a trailer brothel surrounded by creosote scrub in the tiny community of Lathrop Wells.
Still, the space alien is a good clue that down the side road, past a post manned by armed guards from Wackenhut Security, and through a surreal atomic era landscape littered with such oddities as a 1,527ft steel tower used to gauge the effect of radiation levels at Hiroshima, lurks a very rum project: an effort to build the world’s first engineered facility to entomb toxic nuclear waste for millennia.
This unique mausoleum is being built inside Yucca Mountain, a six-mile long ridge on the western rim of the 1,375 square mile Nevada test site. The US Department of Energy has spent two decades pushing its plan to store 70,000 tonnes of highly radioactive waste – 90% from civilian reactors, the rest from weapons laboratories and warships – within the mountain. Once the dump is built, the DoE will spend 24 years filling it up. After 50 to 300 years, during which time waste could be retrieved, the site will be sealed, its purpose indicated by markers or monuments.
The “deep geological disposal” project was officially approved by President Bush in 2002, favoured over such options as leaving waste at reactors, reprocessing, burying it deep in the Earth’s crust, blasting it into space or burying it beneath oceans and polar icecaps.
This was an enormous relief to the US nuclear power industry, which supplies 20% of America’s electricity. Tainted by the Chernobyl and Three Mile Island disasters, the industry seeks to expand as a “clean” energy producer that doesn’t contribute to global warming. But before new reactors can be built, the waste – stuck at 126 locations within a 75-mile range of 161 million people in 39 states – must be dealt with.
Depending on who one listens to, Yucca Mountain is either the end of America’s nuclear waste problem, vital to future energy supplies, or a political white elephant that runs roughshod over safety and health issues.
“Yucca Mountain is probably the most studied site on the surface of the planet,” says Steve Kerekes for the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry trade group. “We believe that between the natural features of that site and the engineering that’s going to go in, that it will be a safe site to manage nuclear fuel over the long term.”
Environmentalists, Shoshone Indians who claim the site as tribal land, and many Nevadans disagree. The state has repeatedly gone to court to stop the project. “You can’t get elected in Nevada unless you oppose Yucca Mountain,” says Judy Treichel, executive director of the anti-dump Nevada Nuclear Waste Task Force. Scheduled to open in 1998, then in 2010, the project has cost $8bn from a $58bn (£31.82bn) budget.
The delay is a headache for nuclear power utilities, especially those short of waste storage facilities. Since 1983 the industry has amassed a $24bn waste fund to help build the repository, on the understanding it would open in 1998. Failure to do so precipitated a flood of breach-of-contract lawsuits. Sixty-one are pending. The Yankee Company has asked for $550m. “If the court awards us $400m, and 60 more cases are coming down the pike, that will raise eyebrows on Capitol Hill,” says Jerry Stouck, the Yankee’s lawyer.
The DoE’s situation worsened in March, with the appearance of emails which suggested scientists had faked test results. “This proves once again that the DoE must cheat and lie to make Yucca Mountain look safe,” fumed Nevada senator Harry Reid, the Senate minority leader.
No surprise that on a choreographed visit to Yucca Mountain, the DoE works hard to prove otherwise. “We don’t ‘dump’ anything,” Allen Benson, a communications manager, says testily when I drop the “d” word as we drive towards the site. Dumping, he insists, is what the Russians did when they scuttled nuclear subs in the Arctic Ocean. The DoE will store waste “in a scientific and thoughtful manner”.
The DoE insists that its “defence in depth” strategy, a combination of geology and engineering, makes Yucca Mountain safe. This theme is constantly reiterated at the project’s on-site headquarters, where a railway line, a conveyor belt to excavate debris, and a pair of ventilation shafts disappear into a five-mile tunnel built by Bechtel SAIC, the civilian contractor. The tunnel re-emerges to the south near the “Yucca Mucker”, an abandoned tunnel-boring machine.
From the top of Yucca Mountain, high above the starkly beautiful Mojave Desert, one can gaze towards the NTS, where 928 atomic bombs were detonated from 1951 to 1992, leaving “hot” areas, remnants of vaporised towns, even wooden seats for VIPobservers. To the north is Area 51, the ultra-secret base on the Nellis Air Force Range. But for the DoE’s critics there is also ample evidence of geological trauma. The mountain is made from tuff rock laid down by a volcanic eruption. Cinder cones and earthquake faults, in what is America’s third most seismic state, litter the area, feeding fears of quakes or volcanic events.
John Hartley, a Bechtel geologist, says the chance of an eruption is the same as an asteroid strike. And while there were 621 seismic events of magnitude 2.5 or greater within 50 miles of the mountain from 1976 to 1996, quakes are a “very low probability”. Hartley says no faults enter the dump, to be located 1,000ft below the summit and 1,000ft above the water table.
Quakes are “primarily a surface phenomenon”, he adds. Buildings will be designed to handle a magnitude 6.5 quake. The dump will be run by robots (though humans will operate external facilities), which will stash waste in parallel shafts, separated by solid tuff.
Yucca Mountain was chosen, in part, because it averages 19cm of rain or snow annually. Most evaporates. The rest soaks into the tuff. Hartley says it drains into a “closed hydrologic system”. Still, water is gold in Nevada. The big unknown is whether water will penetrate the dump, corrode storage casks and carry radioactive particles into the groundwater.
At first, the DoE tried to assuage this concern by saying water took centuries to percolate through the mountain. But in 1997 a report from the Los Alamos National Laboratory showed that chlorine-36, released in the 1950s by bomb tests, had penetrated deep into the rock.
A US Geological Survey report subsequently said water did travel slowly. But this conclusion has been shaken by the email scandal, which involves its staff. “These emails describe deliberate failures to follow quality assurance procedures and irreproducible results related to the infiltration of water at the repository … these emails may create a substantial vulnerability for the programme,” states an internal DoE memo. Another study, by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, reported that seepage in a sealed alcove at Yucca Mountain left water droplets on “impermeable surfaces such as electrical cables, rubber sheets … and bulkhead doors”. Mould and fungus were found.
“If you seal off an alcove it will very rapidly get to almost 100% humidity,” says Treichel. “It gets very damp.” The DoE wants a hot (that is, radioactive) repository, arguing that this will force moisture to migrate into cooler rock. “There are tremendous unknowns,” says Treichel. “What does heat do? Does it make fractures larger? Smaller? Does it disrupt chemistry?”
The DoE admits that water follows “fast pathways”, but says none intersect the repository. Yet, even as the DoE evades questions about the emails so as not to “compromise” federal investigations, it has tentatively concluded the water flow studies were sound.
“It was going to be a whitewash from square one,” Bob Loux, director of the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects told the Las Vegas Review Journal. “We predicted how this was going to look when they announced their investigation.”
Critics accuse the DoE of shifting the goalposts. Thus, news that water travelled through rock quickly was spun as a plus that would quickly expel moisture. If investigators decide the project is driven by deadlines, rather than science, this could torpedo it.
Then there’s the problem of how to ship waste to the repository from as far away as Maine and Florida. The DoE favours building a 320-mile railway line from the Union Pacific track at Caliente, Nevada. Or waste could be hauled by truck. Both scenarios have spawned fears of “mobile Chernobyls” and terrorist attacks. Even if this happened, says the DoE, it is “physically impossible” to create the chain reaction needed for an atomic explosion. Still, radiation might be released.
Back in the bomb test era, punters watched atomic explosions from Las Vegas. Today, America’s fastest growing city, which earns $8bn a year from gambling, litigates to prevent custom being scared off by Yucca Mountain. Last July, Nevada drew blood when a federal appeals court ruled that a 10,000-year safety standard, set for Yucca Mountain by the Environmental Protection Agency, was flawed. A new time frame, guaranteeing safety for the life of the repository, was ordered. Given that the half-life for some of the waste earmarked for Yucca Mountain is 240,000 years, and that 10 half-lives will be needed for it to degrade completely, this poses an unprecedented challenge.
The DoE hopes to get approval to build its dump from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission by 2010. Construction will take two years. By then the dump may be too small: the existing 54,000 tonne waste stockpile grows by 2,000 tonnes a year. The DoE says it could fit in 120,000 tonnes if Congress agrees. Alternatively, a second site might be chosen. The DoE has to report to Congress on that option by 2010.
Last month, Nevada halved its fighting fund, declaring Yucca Mountain doomed. The House of Representatives activated Plan B: interim waste storage within the federal atomic archipelago, probably Savannah river in South Carolina and Hanford in Washington state. This decision is sure to trigger a Nimby outcry. Meanwhile, the waste piles up. Given the stakes, the battle of Yucca Mountain is far from over.