Why Russia Resists a UN Resolution on Syria

United Nations Security CouncilThe mainstream media has largely failed to mention one of the main reasons Russia has been resisting a UN Security Council Resolution which would allow the use of force if the US believes that Syria has failed to meet its obligations. Back in March 2011, Russia allowed UNSC Resolution 1973 which authorized “all necessary measures” to protect Libyan civilians. The West then used that resolution as the basis for air attacks leading to regime change and Gaddafi’s murder — an interpretation of the resolution with which Russia strongly disagrees.

The Russians are afraid that any mention of the use of force in a new UN Security Council Resolution on Syria will be similarly misused for regime change. Russia’s fears are reinforced by the Obama administration  repeatedly saying that “Assad must go,” and its patience was tried when then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called it “despicable” for maintaining its concerns.

Helping to overthrow Gaddafi (as opposed to protecting civilians) also hurt our reputation as a trustworthy partner because, when Gaddafi gave up his WMD programs in 2003,President Bush promised that his good behavior would be rewarded:

Today in Tripoli, the leader of Libya, Colonel Moammar al-Ghadafi, publicly confirmed his commitment to disclose and dismantle all weapons of mass destruction programs in his country. … And another message should be equally clear: leaders who abandon the pursuit of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, and the means to deliver them, will find an open path to better relations with the United States and other free nations. … As the Libyan government takes these essential steps and demonstrates its seriousness, its good faith will be returned. Libya can regain a secure and respected place among the nations, and over time, achieve far better relations with the United States. … old hostilities do not need to go on forever. And I hope that other leaders will find an example in Libya’s announcement today.

The following excerpts from a March 2011 North Korean press release convey an idea of how Russia, China, Iran and other nations with which we have disputes see us as a result of our helping to overthrow Gaddafi after giving such assurances:

The present Libyan crisis teaches the international community a serious lesson. It was fully exposed before the world that “Libya′s nuclear dismantlement” much touted by the U.S. in the past turned out to be a mode of aggression whereby the latter coaxed the former with such sweet words as “guarantee of security” and “improvement of relations” to disarm itself and then swallowed it up by force.

It proved once again the truth of history that peace can be preserved only when one builds up one’s own strength as long as high-handed and arbitrary practices go on in the world. The DPRK was quite just when it took the path of Songun [“Military First”] and the military capacity for self-defence built up in this course serves as a very valuable deterrent for averting a war and defending peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.

We are right to deplore the human tragedy in Syria and to seek ways to reduce the suffering. But we need to more carefully consider the consequences of our actions, both for the Syrian people and in terms of our reputation as a trustworthy negotiating partner.  Diplomacy can work only if all involved parties have a reasonable track record of adhering to their earlier commitments. And without diplomacy, there will almost surely be war.


About Nuclear Risk

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography — the technology that protects your credit card. But, for almost 30 years, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic.

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The dose makes the poison

radiation_dna_damage_bigOne of the most potent arguments against all things nuclear is the idea that even a vanishingly small amount of radiation exposure has the chance to cause cancer. Even if that risk is incredibly low there’s still a risk, and if a huge number of people are exposed to even a small risk then there could be a significant number of deaths. Say, for example, that the entire population of the US were exposed to something that carried a risk of one in a million – nearly 400 people could die nationally.

We can debate whether or not we could “see” these deaths using epidemiology (for example, with over 500,000 cancer deaths annually even as many as 400 additional cancer deaths crammed into a single year would represent an increase of less than one tenth of one percent) but that’s not the point of this posting – rather, the point is to discuss two fascinating papers that discuss the origins of the hypothesis that any incremental amount of radiation exposure can increase our risk of developing cancer, and that this added risk increases linearly with the amount of exposure; what is known as the Linear No-Threshold (LNT) hypothesis. Specifically, the author of these papers, respected University of Massachusetts toxicologist Edward Calabrese, presents a compelling case that the acceptance of this hypothesis as the basis of global radiation regulations is the result of a deliberate campaign that ignored a great deal of scientific evidence to the contrary. But first let’s back up a little bit to discuss what LNT is and how it’s used before digging into this matter and what it might mean.

When ionizing radiation passes through a cell there’s a chance that it will interact with the atoms in that cell – it can strip electrons from neutral atoms, creating an ion pair. Where once there was a happy electrically neutral atom there are now two ions, one with a positive charge (the atom) and a negative electron ejected by the radiation. Once formed the ions might recombine, in which case the story is over. But the ions can also interact with other atoms and molecules in the cell, forming free radicals that can then go on to interact with DNA in the cell’s nucleus. Sometimes these interactions cause DNA damage.

Of course, damaging DNA is only the first step in a process that might lead to cancer, but it’s most likely that nothing will happen. It could be that the damage is repaired by one or more of our exceptionally capable DNA repair mechanisms, and it’s also possible that any unrepaired damage will be in a stretch of “junk” DNA or in a gene that’s inactive in the affected cell. This is described in greater detail in an earlier posting in this series – for the purpose of this one, it’s safe to skip to the end, which is that the overwhelming majority of DNA damage is either repaired or has no impact on the organism (damage to junk DNA or to an inactive gene can’t go on to cause cancer). It’s only the unrepaired (or mis-repaired) DNA damage – and only damage that’s in one of very few specific genes – that can progress to a cancer.

There’s more to the whole matter than this. For example, our cells are always experiencing DNA damage at quite substantial rates – one estimate is that each cell is subject to several million DNA-damaging events per year – and the damage due to radiation is indistinguishable from that caused by other agents. So for us to decide how damaging a particular dose of radiation might be, for us to try to calculate a risk from a particular dose of radiation we’ve got to first understand how much DNA damage this dose will cause, then to determine how much of this damage goes unrepaired (or mis-repaired), to compare this level of damage to the background damage that is always afflicting our cells, and finally to figure out whether or not that damage will affect one of the few genes that can progress towards cancer. The important part of this is that DNA damage due to radiation doesn’t occur in a vacuum – it adds to the damage that is already occurring. It takes a dose of about 100 rem to double the amount of damage that occurs in a year – a dose that will increase a person’s lifetime cancer risk by about 5% according to the current thinking. This relationship is well-accepted at radiation doses in excess of about 10 rem (over a lifetime – 5 rem if the exposure takes place in a very short period of time); the question is whether or not it remains constant at any level of radiation exposure, no matter how slight. This is where we get to Calabrese’s recent work.

To use a simple analogy, think of the DNA damage in our cells as a variant on the bathtub problems we all got to solve in middle school algebra – the accumulation of DNA damage from whatever source is the water filling the tub and the repair of this DNA damage (or the damage that occurs in inert sections of DNA) is the drain. If the rate of removal is the same as the rate of accumulation then there’s no net impact on the health of the organism. So the question is whether or not the normal rate of accumulation is enough to max out our DNA damage repair mechanisms or if our cells have residual repair capacity. And, on top of that, if, when any residual capacity gets fired up, it repairs the same amount of damage that was inflicted, a little bit more, or a little bit less. To use the tub analogy, if you have the faucet turned on full and water level in the tub is holding steady, will pouring an additional stream of water into the tub cause it to overflow? If the drain is just barely keeping up with the influx then it will start to fill up and will eventually overflow; otherwise the tub can accept a little more water without making a mess. So here’s the question – if we don’t know in advance the capacity of the drain and if the answer is potentially a matter of life and death then what should we assume – the worst case or the best? Obviously the answer is, in the absence of any firm information, it makes sense to assume the worst and in the case of radiation risk this would be LNT. But when further knowledge is available it makes sense to adapt our hypothesis to make use of the new information.

This is precisely what Calabrese says some of the earliest researchers in this field failed to do – in fact, there seems to be evidence that they willfully ignored evidence that could have led to some significant revisions to the use of the LNT hypothesis – the question is whether or not “willfully ignored” means that the scientists chose not to include data that they felt were flawed, if they omitted studies simply because the results contradicted their own results, if the scientists omitted results to try to mislead the scientific community, or something else. In other words, did these scientists set out to deceive the scientific community (for whatever reason)?

At this point, with all of the early scientists dead, we can only guess at their intent or their motives. Calabrese lays out his case – quite convincingly – in two papers, summaries of which can be found online in the two pages linked to here. And for what it’s worth, while I’ve reached my own conclusions on this matter, I’m not sure whether or not I can approach the matter objectively, so rather than relate them here I think it’s better to simply refer you to Calabrese’s work so that you can draw your own conclusions from the information he lays out.

So what have we got? Well, for starters we have the issue of intellectual honesty. Did scientists overlook crucial research or did they make a conscious decision to omit scientific research that contradicted what they believed – or what they wanted – to be the truth? Did they make a mistake, did they deceive themselves, did they deceive others? Or were they right, but instead of arguing their case they chose to leave out information they felt to be irrelevant. But regardless of which of these possibilities is correct – even if those who first came up with the LNT hypothesis were correct – we have to ask ourselves if any them is completely intellectually honest. The only option that gets these authors off the hook is if they were simply unaware of studies that contradicted the hypothesis that they came up with. But even here they fall short because it’s the scientists’ job to know about – and to discuss – these contrary studies, if only to demonstrate why the contrary studies are wrong. After reading Calabrese’s papers I find myself wondering about the intellectual honesty of the early scientists who developed the LNT hypothesis.

The other question we have to ask ourselves is whether or not it matters. Sometimes it doesn’t. Fibbing about the discovery of a new species of insect, for example, might not have much of an impact on our society. But the risk from low levels of radiation is different – it affects how we think about the risks from medical radiation, from nuclear power, air travel, from airport x-ray screening, from radiological terrorism, and more. The use of radiation permeates our society and the manner in which we control the risks from radiation is based on our perception of the risks it poses. Radiation protection is not cheap – if our radiation safety measures are based on a hypothesis that’s overly conservative then we are wasting money on protective measures that don’t gain us any added safety. It’s important to know if the hypothesis – LNT – is accurate and it’s just as important to know whether or not it stands on solid intellectual foundations.

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Where does the plutonium come from?

new_horizonsLast week I wrote about how the shortage of Pu-238 might impact the exploration of the outer Solar System, but I didn’t much get into where the plutonium comes from. After all, while there are trace amounts of natural plutonium, there certainly isn’t nearly enough to fuel a space probe. So this week it seemed as though it might be worth going over where we get our plutonium, if only to understand why NASA (or DOE) needs tens of millions of dollars to produce it.

On the Periodic Table plutonium is two spots above uranium – uranium has an atomic number of 92 (that is, it has 92 protons) and plutonium is at 94. To make plutonium we somehow have to add two protons to a uranium atom. The way this happens is sort of cool – and there are different routes depending on the plutonium isotope that’s being produced.

To make Pu-239, the nuclide used in nuclear weapons, it’s a fairly simple process. Natural uranium is over 99% U-238, which doesn’t fission all that well. Put the U-238 (which makes up a minimum of 95% of the reactor fuel) into the middle of a reactor, which is seething with neutrons from uranium fission, and it will capture a neutron and turn into U-239. The U-239, in turn, decays by emitting a beta particle to neptunium-239, which gives off another beta particle. Since each beta decay turns a neutron into a proton, these two beta decays suffice to turn a uranium atom into one of plutonium. Thus, a single U-238 atom absorbing a single neutron and being allowed to sit long enough to undergo two beta decays (a few weeks or so) will turn into a single atom of Pu-239. Making heavier plutonium nuclides is just as easy – when Pu-239 captures additional neutrons it turns into Pu-240, Pu-241, Pu-242, and more. Not only is it fairly easy, but it happens all the time in any operating nuclear reactor.

OK – so we can see how simple neutron capture and patience can give us plutonium nuclides heavier than U-238, but this really doesn’t help us to make the Pu-238 needed to power a spacecraft. Making the lighter nuclide is a little more roundabout.

Remember that, through neutron capture, a reactor produces Pu-241. It turns out that Pu-241 also decays by beta emission, creating Am-241 – the stuff that’s used in smoke detectors (among other things). Am-241 is an alpha emitter and it decays to a lighter variety of neptunium (Np-237) which, when subjected to neutron irradiation, captures a neutron to become Np-238. One final transformation – a last beta decay – is the last step to producing Pu-238. This is the reason why Pu-238 is so expensive – making it requires two bouts of irradiation (the first long enough to produce the Pu-241), enough time for all of the radioactive decays to transform plutonium into americium and the americium into neptunium, and several steps of chemical processing to isolate the various elements of interest that are formed.

Although it sounds convoluted (well, I guess it is convoluted), making Pu-238 is fairly straight-forward. The science and engineering are both well-known and well-established, and its production certainly breaks no new scientific or technical ground. But the politics…that’s another matter altogether.

As I mentioned last week, the American Pu-238 production line shut down over two decades ago. Since then we’ve been buying it from the Russians, but they’ve got their own space program and have limited stocks to boot. So this option is not going to work for much longer, regardless of the future of US-Russian international relations.

A recent blog posting by Nuclear Watch suggested that the US might be able to meet its Pu-238 needs by dismantling nuclear weapons and by digging into its inventory of scrap Pu-238 – it notes that the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) documents indicate that over 2000 RTGs’ worth of the nuclide can be recovered from nuclear weapons alone. But I’m not sure if I can accept this assertion, primarily because putting this nuclide into a nuclear weapon makes absolutely no sense. I can’t comment on the “scraps” of Pu-238 that LANL is said to have lying around, and unfortunately Nuclear Watch didn’t provide a link to the LANL documents they cited, making it difficult to check or to comment further. But if there is a Pu-238 stockpile at LANL it would certainly be nice to tap it for space exploration – not to mention the savings in disposal costs.

Yet another way to make Pu-238 is in a liquid fluoride thorium reactor (LFTR) – a reactor that uses naturally occurring thorium (Th-232) to breed U-233, which fissions quite nicely. Additional neutron captures can turn U-233 into Pu-238, which can be chemically separated from the fuel. There’s a lot more to the topic than this, but I covered the topic of thorium reactors fairly thoroughly last year (the first of these posts is at this URL, and there are three others in the same series) and it’s also covered on the Thorium Energy Alliance’s website. There are a lot of nice things about thorium reactors in addition to their being able to produce Pu-238, and it’s a technology that’s been worked out and tested – but the US shows no sign of building any of them anytime soon. India and China might develop extensive thorium reactor systems – but what these nations might do a decade or two in the future won’t do much for NASA in the next few years. The bottom line is that, however promising they might be for future needs, thorium reactors aren’t likely to help us send more spacecraft to the outer Solar System anytime soon.

So here’s where we stand. The US stopped producing the Pu-238 needed to run our deep-space probes and we’ve pretty much used up our stocks of the material. In the intervening years we’ve been buying Russian Pu-238, but that won’t be available for much longer, leaving us high and dry. There may be scraps of the material – possibly even stockpiles – at various DOE facilities, but dismantling nuclear weapons is probably not going to do the job. Over the long run thorium-cycle reactors might be a great way to make it, but these reactors aren’t operating anywhere in the world today and there are no American plans to build any of them anytime soon. That would seem to leave us with only three options – re-start our Pu-238 production line, find another way to make (or obtain) the material, or confine ourselves to the inner Solar System. As I mentioned last week, I sincerely hope we don’t go the last route. So let’s see what we can come up with – and let’s hope we don’t leave the solution (and decisions) too long.

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Houston – we need some plutonium

Pu-238 glowing with the heat of alpha radiation decay

Pu-238 glowing with the heat of alpha radiation

The outer Solar System is a dark and lonely place – solar energy drops off with the inverse square of distance to the Sun so a spaceship in orbit around Jupiter (5.5 times as far from the Sun as the Earth) receives only about 3% as much solar energy as one orbiting Earth. Solar panels do a great job of powering spacecraft out about as far as Mars but anything sent to the outer reaches of the Solar System needs to find some other source of power. For most spacecraft this means using plutonium – specifically the isotope Pu-238. And according to some recent reports, we might be running out this particular flavor of plutonium. Since we can’t visit the outer solar system on solar power and batteries have a limited lifespan, if we want to go past the asteroid belt we’ve got to go nuclear with either radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) or reactors. And according to a NASA scientist (quoted in the story linked to above) we are running out of Pu-238 – if we don’t take steps to either replenish our stocks or to develop an alternative then our deep space exploration might grind to a halt. But before getting into that, let’s take a quick look at why Pu-238 is such a good power source.

As with any other element, plutonium has a number of isotopes – Pu-239 is the one that fissions nicely enough to be used in nuclear weapons, and the slightly heavier version (Pu-240) also fissions nicely. These heavier plutonium isotopes are both produced in nuclear reactors when U-238 captures a neutron or two – any operating reactor produces them and, for that matter, fissioning these plutonium isotopes produces a significant amount of energy in any nuclear reactor. Pu-238 is also produced in reactors, but through a slightly more convoluted pathway. The bottom line is that useable quantities of plutonium – fissionable or non – are produced in reactors.

What makes Pu-238 valuable is that it decays away quite nicely and produces a boatload of energy when it decays – it has a long enough half-life (just a tad less than 88 years) to last for decades and it gives off a high-energy alpha particle (for those who are interested, the alpha energy is over 5.5 MeV).

So let’s look at how this is turned into energy. Plutonium-238 has a half-life of 87.7 years and a decay constant (a measure of the fraction of Pu-238 atoms that will decay in a year) of 0.0079. To get a bit geekish, if we can calculate the number of atoms in a kg of Pu-238 then we can multiply the number of atoms by the decay constant to figure out how many decays will occur in a given period of time. A kg of Pu-238 has about 2.5×1023 atoms – multiply this by the decay constant and we find that there should be about 2×1022 atoms decaying every year; a year has about 3.1×107 seconds so this will give a decay rate of about 6.4×1014 atoms every second. And since each decay carries with it about 5.5 million electron volts (MeV), 1 kg of Pu-238 produces 3.5×1015 MeV every second. Doing some unit conversions gives us an energy production of about 550 joules per second – one J/sec is 1 watt, so each kilogram of Pu-238 produces 550 watts of power. A 5-kg RTG (like the one that’s powering the Curiosity rover on Mars) will put out nearly 3 kW of thermal power. This is enough heat that a sufficiently large mass of Pu-238 will glow red-hot; captured, it can be transformed into electricity to power the spacecraft – with a 5% conversion efficiency from thermal to electrical energy, this 10 kg of Pu will produce about 150 watts of electrical power. There are more efficient ways of turning heat into electricity, but they all have their limitations or are untried technologies.

This is where the Pu-238 half-life comes into play – it will take 87.7 years for 50% of the Pu-238 (and for power production to drop by half), so power will drop by only about 0.8% in a year. The Pu-238 half life is short enough to make for a furious decay rate – enough to produce the power needed to run a spaceship – but long enough to last for the decades needed to reach Pluto (the destination of the New Horizons ship) or to linger in orbit around Jupiter and Saturn (a la Galileo and Cassini). Without RTGs powered by Pu-238 we can’t explore much beyond the asteroid belt. This is why the possible exhaustion of our stocks of this nuclide so alarms Adams. According to Adams, NASA has already delayed or cancelled a number of planned missions to the outer Solar System, including a mission to study Europa, whose oceans are considered a prime candidate as an abode for life outside of Earth. The Department of Energy estimates that an annual outlay of $20 million or less would be enough to supply NASA’s Pu-238 needs, but this amount has not been forthcoming.

The space program is controversial and has been controversial for a half-century. Some decried the spending on Apollo, in spite of the fact that it gave us humanity’s first steps on another world. The Shuttle program also came under fire for a number of reasons, as has the International Space Station. And unmanned programs have been criticized as well. The common thread in most of this criticism is a matter of money – asking why in the world we should spend billions of dollars to do something that doesn’t provide any tangible benefit to those of us on Earth. Those making this argument are those who are reluctant to spend (or waste, as they’d put it) a few tens of millions of dollars annually to power the spacecraft that could help us learn more about our cosmic neighborhood.

The economic argument is hard to refute on economic grounds – there’s no denying that close-up photos of Saturn’s rings or Titan’s hydrocarbon seas haven’t fed a single hungry person here at home. And for that matter, even finding life on Mars (or Europa) will not feed the hungry here on Earth. But there has got to be more to life than simple economics – if not then there would be no need for art, for music, for sports, or for any of the other things we do when we’re not working, eating, sleeping, or attending to personal hygiene.

Discussing the relative merits of “pure” science is beyond the scope of this post (although I did discuss it in an earlier post in this blog). But I think it’s worth pointing out that the public showed a genuine interest in the exploits of the Voyager probe, the Galileo mission, and the Cassini craft – not to mention the missions to Mars, Venus, and elsewhere. I’d like to think that the deep space program is worth another few tens of millions of dollars a year for the entertainment value alone – especially given the vast sums that are spent on movies and TV shows that are watched by fewer people and that provide little in the way of enlightenment or uplifted spirits.

One other point that’s worth considering is that NASA’s outer Solar System missions are billion-plus dollar missions and the cost of plutonium is a small fraction of this amount. While not a major part of the nation’s economy, NASA programs employ a lot of people throughout the US to design and build the machines and the rockets that loft them into space, not to mention everyone who works to collect and analyze the data as it comes to Earth. That our deep-space capacity and those who keep it running might grind to a halt for lack of a few tens of millions of dollars of plutonium is a shame. The loss of everything else that goes along with our space program – the influx of new knowledge, the cool pictures, the sense of pride that we can send a working spacecraft so far and can keep it working so long, and the sense of wonder that comes from considering (even if only for a short time) our place in the universe – losing this for want of a little plutonium would be a crime.

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Yucca Mountain: Questions and Concerns

mythbusters signsYucca Mountain raises a lot of controversy – let’s face it; if it didn’t then a 4-part series of blog postings would hardly be necessary. Part of the reason for the controversy is that there are a number of worries about the impact of spent fuel disposal on the environment and on the health of people living and working in the area and along the transportation routes. So to close this series out I’d like to tackle some of these concerns to see which hold water and which might be over-stated. One good place to find a number of these concerns is a website put together by the State of Nevada in 1998.

Radiation levels from the spent fuel will be dangerously high for millennia

This is true, but not really relevant to the question of safe disposal at Yucca Mountain because no person will ever come in contact with the spent fuel. As I mentioned in the last posting, the spent fuel will be locked away inside of heavy-duty casks that are designed to shield the radiation, reducing it to less than 10 mR/hr at a distance of 2 meters from the cask. As long as the fuel remains inside the casks the fact that the fuel itself is intensely radioactive doesn’t make a difference – nobody can be harmed by radiation to which they’re not exposed. And with regards to the spent fuel remaining inside the casks – remember that the casks are rugged; they’re designed to survive hits from speeding locomotives, and once they’re in place in the ground they’ll not even face that risk. Finally, while the fuel remains radioactive for millennia, the radiation levels fall off fairly quickly over time – after several decades (far less than the design lifetime for the waste site or for the casks) radiation dose rates are down to a fraction of the original levels.

Spent fuel contains intensely toxic plutonium

Also true, but again not as dire as it sounds. Yes – spent fuel contains plutonium because plutonium is created when uranium-238 atoms capture neutrons during nuclear fission. And yes – plutonium is a very toxic heavy metal. But plutonium is hardly the most toxic element known to man – a toxicologist I used to work with could name a dozen substances that are more toxic (including shellfish toxins and fungal toxins). In fact, plutonium was administered to humans to help puzzle out how it acts and moves within the body and those to whom it was administered remained alive and well (and yes, many of these tests would be considered unethical today and they have generated a ton of controversy – but that doesn’t change the fact that the testing did not harm those who were tested).

And let’s think for a moment about what has to happen for the plutonium in the fuel to reach a person who might be harmed by it. Groundwater would have to percolate down through the hundreds of feet of rock to reach the spent fuel containers. Then it would have to penetrate through the casks by corroding the metal and soaking through the concrete layers. Once inside the casks it would have to dissolve the fuel elements – including the highly insoluble plutonium – and would then have to escape again. Finally, it would have to carry the dissolved plutonium through another several hundred feet of rock to the water table and, once there, would have to carry it however many miles to the nearest human with a well sunk into the aquifer. Possible? Yes. Plausible – especially in time measured in millennia? Not really.

Geologic events – earthquakes or volcanic eruptions – can cause the casks to fail, speeding the release of radioactivity to the environment.

Let’s take the easy one first. Yucca Mountain is made of volcanic rocks and there have been volcanic eruptions in the American Southwest within the last several thousand years. So it is plausible to think that there might be more such eruptions in the next few tens of thousands of years. But there are two primary types of eruptions – those with lava and those without. The style of eruption in the American Southwest has historically been ashfalls rather lava – such an eruption would only serve to entomb the spent fuel even more deeply, and the ash itself is too cool to melt the spent fuel casks. Being immersed in lava is more likely to damage the casks, but the lava itself isn’t likely to flow as far as the Las Vegas suburbs. To expose people to elevated levels of radiation the lava would have to immerse the casks long enough to melt them and then continue flowing and carrying the fission products with it – and continue far enough to expose people. There have been lava flows that have covered hundreds of miles, but not within millions of years. So while it is plausible to think that volcanic eruptions might be able to release radioactivity to the environment, the debris or lava are more likely to bury the waste even further than they are to release it to the environment.

Earthquakes are a little more problematic – the concerns here are that an earthquake could open up new fractures, speeding the flow of water from the surface to the casks and from the casks to the water table. Another concern would be that an earthquake could rupture the casks and release radioactivity. Both of these are plausible – we know that earthquakes fracture rock and can disrupt groundwater flows and they can certainly do that in Yucca Mountain. And we know that they can fracture rock, so they can certainly fracture spent fuel casks. So it is plausible to think that an earthquake could cause radionuclides to be released from the spent fuel casks. But we also have to think about the odds that an earthquake will open a fracture that passes through the very rock – the exact part of the rock – that the casks are sitting in. It’s certainly possible, but the odds are against it.

Plutonium might leak out of the canisters and accumulate in a critical mass in the environment and explode

This is one of my favorites. Not only do we have to get the plutonium out of the casks (water leaking into the waste repository, penetrating into the casks, dissolving plutonium, making its way into the environment), but then enough of the plutonium has to precipitate out of solution in the same place – and under the correct conditions – to form a critical mass. And it’s important to understand that a critical mass is not something that will explode but simply something that will sustain a fission chain reaction under the right circumstances. Going through the steps to even get plutonium into the environment is challenging enough and not likely to happen. Precipitating the plutonium out of solution in a critical mass adds to the unlikelihood. And putting together something that could blow up is well-nigh impossible.

Putting all of the spent fuel – which contains plutonium – in one spot makes a tempting target for terrorists and is a proliferation risk

Putting all of the spent fuel in one place certainly increases the amount of plutonium in this one location. On the other hand, we also have to wonder if it’s better to have only one location at risk or the 50+ that exist today. We can make a good argument that it’s easier to guard and make impregnable a single location than to try to secure every reactor facility in the nation.

With regards to non-proliferation, anyone trying to make a nuclear weapon would first have to get to the spent fuel casks and would then have to either steal some very large and heavy casks or would have to open them up at the waste site and remove the fuel from them – actions that would be hampered by high radiation levels anytime in the next several decades. And did I mention getting the spent fuel offsite and out of the country? Then the putative terrorists (or infiltrators from a prospective nuclear power) would have to remove the fuel, chop it up and dissolve it in acid, and chemically process it to remove the plutonium. The bottom line is that no terrorist group has the resources to pull this off, and neither do most nations. So…possible? Well – maybe, from the standpoint that winning the lottery by buying a single ticket is possible. Plausible – nope. This is another one that just doesn’t pan out.


I could go on and on – there have been tons of arguments raised about why spent reactor fuel shouldn’t be disposed of at Yucca Mountain. Some of these arguments – the one about plutonium leaking out, forming a critical mass, and going boom comes to mind – are either deliberately specious or are a sort of worst-case wishful thinking; they will certainly not happen in the real world. Others – the possibility of an earthquake rupturing the spent fuel casks is one – are plausible, but the odds are very much against their happening. But here’s what it comes down to – we will be able to come up with lengthy lists of arguments both for and against putting spent reactor fuel just about anywhere. At some point we have to say one of three things:

  • We’re happy with the current situation and are going to stick with it forever,
  • We’re going to suck it up and put the waste in a location where our best science tells us it will be safe from any reasonable set of circumstances, or
  • We’re going to give up nuclear power and find some other way to produce 20% of our electrical needs.

The bottom line is that the entire nation benefits from the use of nuclear energy – again, 20% of our power is nuclear. There are ample places where the waste from these reactors can be stored with minimum risk to the environment or to people. We may never find a single location that we can certify as being “best” and the nit-pickers among us will always be able to find arguments – however irrational, specious, or ill-informed – that seem to mitigate against any particular site. But at some point the nation will need to find a place that, while perhaps not perfect, is good enough to meet our needs because it meets all reasonable criteria for waste disposal in the real world.

At some point, whether the nation is going to continue using nuclear energy or not, we are going to have to find a spot to put the spent reactor fuel that has accumulated and that is currently being stored across the nation. It makes sense that this location be someplace that is dry and under-populated, that is convenient to major transportation routes, and that is geologically and hydrogeologically suitable for isolating the waste while it is dangerous. These sites exist and Yucca Mountain is one of them. I would suggest that the technical problems of long-term radioactive waste disposal are relatively minor – the natural nuclear reactor at Oklo has shown us that even wet and fractured rock can retain radioactive waste for eons – it is the political problems that have thus far proven insurmountable. But let’s not deceive ourselves – the seemingly scientific objections to Yucca Mountain are pretexts for the underlying political objections. It is politics, not science or engineering that’s holding up our waste disposal solution. And until we can resolve these political problems we will continue to store our waste in a host of vulnerable locations scattered around the US.

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Yucca Mountain – Packaging and Storing Radioactive Waste

t1larg.casks.nrcSo – thus far we’ve gone over a little of the history of the Yucca Mountain project and how both geology and hydrogeology can affect waste disposal. What I thought could be interesting today would be to talk a little about how the spent reactor fuel is packaged – both for transport and for disposal – because this is a third factor that has a profound impact on how well the waste can be isolated from the environment. Then, for the last installment in this series (next week) I’ll try to examine some of the claims both for and against the site to see how well they hold up.

To recap a little bit – fissioning a uranium atom splits it into 2 radioactive fission products. These accumulate as the reactor operates – adding more radioactivity as time goes on. As the reactor operates, though, the fuel “burns” up the uranium – after a few years the concentration of fissionable atoms drops to the point where it’s time to swap out the spent fuel rods for new ones. The spent rods are intensely radioactive so they’re normally stashed in spent fuel pools until they can cool off a bit – and in this case, “cooling off” means thermally as well as radiologically since the energy given off by the decaying fission products causes the spent fuel to heat up. But after a long enough time the fuel will cool off to the point at which it can be removed from the water and placed into huge casks that are placed in storage yards at the reactor sites – this is called dry cask storage.

At some point – if Yucca Mountain or some other high-level waste repository opens up – either the dry casks will be used for transport or the spent fuel will be transferred to transport casks that will be loaded onto rail cars or trucks and relocated to their final resting place. It’s these casks that will also be the penultimate barrier between the radioactivity within and the environment so they warrant a description.

First of all the things are huge. I saw some in Lithuania about a decade ago and they looked to be at least 10 feet tall and 5 feet in diameter. And since the physics of uranium fission are the same around the world (reactor design changes somewhat from place to place, but not enough to make a huge difference for commercial reactors) the characteristics of spent reactor fuel are reasonably similar as are the characteristics of the casks. In other words, the spent fuel casks in the US are huge as well.

In addition to providing protection to the spent fuel they are also designed to reduce radiation dose rates to an acceptable level – low enough to pose no risk to those sharing the road with the casks if they are transported by truck. But there’s a lot more to safely shipping waste than keeping rad levels down – the spent fuel casks must also be able to protect the waste while it’s in transit to the final disposal site, not to mention protecting it during its long millennia in storage. We’ll tackle these one at a time.

Spent fuel casks have to meet some stringent requirements to ensure that they don’t release highly radioactive fission products while they’re in transit to the final disposal site. Casks must be able to pass these tests without suffering a failure:

  • A 9-meter (30 foot) fall onto a hard surface
  • Puncture test where the container falls 1 meter onto a 6” steel rod
  • 30 minutes of being engulfed in an 800 degree C (1475 degree F) fire
  • 8 hours of immersion beneath 3 feet of water
  • 1 hour of immersion beneath 200 meters (655 feet) of water

These requirements are more than theoretical – in the 1970s Sandia National Laboratories tested some spent fuel containers with full-scale crashes to confirm that what looked good on paper and in the laboratory would work in real life. The most dramatic test was running a locomotive engine into a flatbed truck carrying a cask on it – the locomotive was pretty much destroyed while the cask, while damaged, survived and would not have leaked radioactivity into the environment. There’s a nice video on YouTube showing the locomotive test and others – these videos alone ought to allay any doubts about the ability of these casks to protect spent fuel while it’s en route to the disposal site.

Physical ruggedness is nice, but there’s more to keeping radioactive waste safe than protecting it from collisions – once delivered to the site the casks have to help keep the waste isolated from the environment for up to a million years and that takes a lot more than strength. Rust and corrosion will attack the strongest container – all they need are the right conditions and enough time to work. Not only that, but metals behave differently (and chemical reactions proceed more quickly) at higher temperatures – such as those produced by the decay of fission products. So the thermal effects also have to be factored in when designing the things.

So here’s the bad news about long-term disposal of spent reactor fuel – and the containers meant to hold it. Nobody knows how a container is going to hold up over even 100,000 years, let alone a million years (the time span required by EPA). We can do our best to design something with the lowest possible corrosion rate and we can do our best to design in a high level of structural strength – but no matter how we try to artificially age these materials in the lab we can only guess at their long-term performance. Let’s face it – all of human history is only about 5000 years and the Pyramids are younger than that. We can assert the longevity of our designed structures all we want, but we have no direct experience with anything so long-lived. Of course we can put other barriers in place as well – and likely will – but anything artificial suffers the same drawback, that all of human history is far shorter than the period of time for which we’re hoping to isolate the waste.

On the other hand, the engineered packages aren’t the only barrier between the radioactive waste and the environment – and we actually do have one data point about the ability of rock to hold radioactive waste for prolonged periods of time. In fact, what we have is the remnants of a natural nuclear reactor that achieved criticality in what is now the nation of Gabon (in Western Africa) about two billion years ago. The details of how the reactor (called the Oklo reactor) formed and operated are fascinating, but there’s not enough room in this posting to go into the details. For the purposes of this, let it suffice to say that in two billion years, virtually all of the fission products have remained in place. This is in spite of the reactor zone being located in fractured and porous sandstone that was below the water table more often than not – in fact, if the reactor zone were not completely saturated with water the reactor could never have operated. So – remembering the last two posts – porous and water-saturated rock are not well-suited for waste disposal. But in spite of this, the fission products have remained in place for two billion years. This bodes well for the ability of Yucca Mountain (or whatever location ends up with the spent fuel repository) to safely isolate the waste until it decays to stability.

So here’s the bottom line with regards to the waste containers. First, they certainly seem capable of safely storing spent reactor fuel for the length of time that they’re stored at the reactor plants and multiple tests have shown they can protect the waste while it’s en route to wherever it will be disposed of. But no matter how well we design the containers – no matter how convincing our computer models and calculations might be, there’s no guarantee that they’ll last the million years that is the current standard for the waste site. But that doesn’t mean that Yucca Mountain is incapable of storing radioactive waste safely for that length of time – the natural nuclear reactor in Oklo shows that even radioactive waste that’s stored in porous and water-saturated sandstone can remain in place for the eons. This bodes well for the Yucca Mountain site’s ability to retain our radioactive waste for a paltry million years or so.

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Yucca Mountain – hydrogeology

bigstock_Water_Drop_Blue_8453Although I’m a radiation safety professional I studied geology as an undergrad and for my MS (my doctorate is in Environmental Science). This included several classes in hydrogeology – these were some interesting classes, and I added to the experience by doing some work as a field hydrogeologist for a project at a Department of Energy facility in the early 1990s. Although I’m not a professional hydrogeologist, between my classes and field experience I’ve at least got some familiarity with the basic concepts of field geology, with groundwater modeling, and with some of the practicalities of work in the field. But before applying this to Yucca Mountain, I’d like to go over some of the fundamentals of hydrogeology (you can find much more in a wonderful publication by the United States Geological Survey).

The biggest of these is sort of obvious – water flows downhill. Or, to be precise, water flows down-gradient; from an area of high pressure to an area of lower pressure. This means that groundwater can flow uphill, just as water can flow through pipes from the ground floor to higher floors in a building, if the water pressure is high enough.

Although water normally doesn’t exist in the form of underground rivers or streams it does flow through sediments. But water in a river or stream will flow hundreds or thousands of kilometers in a year; water flowing through an aquifer might flow only a few meters in a year. And unlike surface water where you can pump seemingly unlimited quantities of water (up to the capacity of the river or stream of course), most aquifers are more limited in capacity.

There are a number of factors that affect the speed at which water flows through an aquifer and the rate at which it can be pumped from the ground. One factor is the porosity of the aquifer – the percentage of the rock or sediments that is pore space. An aquifer with higher porosity (all else being equal) will hold more water. But there’s more to an aquifer than how much water it will hold – if the pores are interconnected the water can flow easily from one pore to the next, if they are isolated then water remains locked in the pore space. So permeability is another important factor – clay can actually have a high degree of porosity but, since the pores are blocked off from each other, it is highly impermeable; so much so that clay is frequently used to seal landfills to isolate whatever they hold. Groundwater flows slowly through low-permeability rock and sediments – flow velocities can be as low as centimeters per year. One other thing – permeability depends on more than just the interconnection between pores – cracks and fractures can pipe water through the rock at high velocities, adding to the permeability.

Something else to keep in mind is that water can be corrosive and it’s a solvent, so if we’re trying to isolate radioactive waste – to keep it safe for millennia – then it behooves us to try to keep water away from it. This is why designers do their best to keep water out of all hazardous materials landfills and disposal sites – not just radioactive waste facilities. And since high-level waste can remain fairly highly radioactive for centuries or longer (and since it can also contain things like plutonium and americium), we need to do our best to try to keep water away from the waste containers for the same length of time.

One last thing to consider is that virtually every place on Earth has a water table. Water falls on the surface as rain or snow, the water flows downhill to collect in lakes, rivers, and streams, and water can leak out of the bottoms and sides of the rivers, lakes, and streams into the soil. This water will percolate downwards until it can’t descend any further – usually because it fetches up against an impermeable layer of rock or soil (clay, for example). The water will collect there and will begin flowing downgradient. Sometimes the water table is only a few feet underground, in other places it’s thousands of feet down.

So let’s put this together to try to figure out what sort of hydrological conditions will be good for a high-level waste repository. And remember that the whole idea is to keep water away from the radioactive waste as long as possible and, when contact with water is inevitable, to minimize its duration. So what conditions are we looking for?

The first condition should be to have the waste as far from water as possible. Satisfying this means in part putting the waste as far from the water table as possible. In the case of Yucca Mountain the proposed waste location is both several hundred feet above the local water table and several hundred feet below the surface upon which rain and snow will fall. The depth to the water table means that there are no worries about water rising to flood the site from below – and that any leaking waste will take a long time to descend to the water table; the depth below ground means that precipitation has quite a distance to flow before reaching the waste.

So it’s nice that the waste will be stored several hundred feet belowground, but a more fundamental question is whether or not surface water can reach it – after all, if the rock is heavily fractured and permeable then water can be piped directly down from the surface, possibly reaching the waste in hours or days. On the other hand, if the rock is impermeable then the water will take so long to reach the waste that it’ll be absorbed by the intervening rock before it ever penetrates to the waste repository. Porous, fractured rock speeds the flow of water from the surface to the waste; low-permeability rock impedes it.

Something else can slow the flow of water as well – geometry and chemical reactions. The parched desert rock that overlies the Yucca Mountain repository soaks up water in two ways – first, water percolating through the rock will coat and fill the pore spaces it’s flowing through and until the pores are filled with water it won’t flow further. So even permeable rock – if it’s bone dry – will absorb quite a bit of water. As the water coats the pores it also reacts chemically with the minerals that comprise the rock. Feldspar, for example, is a dry mineral that hydrates to form clay minerals. So groundwater in contact with feldspar will be absorbed by the feldspar, forming clay. There are other hydration reactions as well – most dry minerals will weather to form hydrated versions. Water flowing slowly through rock will undergo these hydration reactions until all of the available minerals are converted – only then will water start flowing through the rock, if the new minerals haven’t expanded to block the passages, which sometimes happens.

So think of the rock overlying the waste repository as a sponge – if you trickle water slowly onto a sponge, the sponge will slowly expand as it absorbs the water. The sponge swells and swells until it’s saturated – only then will water start to drip from the bottom. And – in the absence of large fractures – surface precipitation will not reach the waste repository until the rock overlying the repository site is saturated and converted to hydrated minerals. Cracks and fractures are a different story – but even here, if the flow path is sufficiently circuitous or if the fractures are sufficiently small, the water will react with dry minerals before it can reach the waste.

So we know that the Yucca Mountain repository site is situated several hundred feet from both the water table and the surface precipitation, but what about the rock? Well, it’s reasonably porous and it has some fractures – not the ideal rock to form an impermeable barrier. Geologists have found fractures and faults in the overlying rock, as well as evidence that hydrous minerals have formed in the past. This means that not only will the rock hold a lot of water, but there are some flowpaths to get that water to the waste location. On the other hand, the rock pretty dry, so the water has to first fill up the pore space and then hydrate the minerals – something that can take hundreds of thousands of years in a climate as dry as Nevada’s. So from this standpoint, the hydrogeology of Yucca Mountain might not be perfect, but it’s pretty good.

The kicker is that, while we know what today’s climate is like, we don’t know what it will be like in a thousand years. If it stays dry then the waste will be in good shape. But if the climate changes and puts Nevada in the monsoon belt then all bets are off. This is not disqualifying, by the way – but it would call for relying on engineered barriers as well as natural ones to help keep the waste dry. The engineering is something we’ll look at in a future posting.

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Avoiding Needless Wars, Part 8: Syria

belle syriaThere are strong indications that President Obama will take military action against Syria,  even though several key questions have not been answered.

First, what good will an American attack do? Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey recently told Congress, “Syria today is not about choosing between two sides but rather about choosing one among many sides. … It is my belief that the side we choose must be ready to promote their interests and ours when the balance shifts in their favor. Today, they are not.”

Second, what harm will an American attack do? There is evidence that keeping this civil war going will increase the fighting strength of al Qaeda. In addition to threatening our own nation, that also increases the risk of chaos in the Russian Federation, particularly its Chechen Republic. Unrest in a nation with thousands of nuclear weapons – especially when pointed at us – is a threat to our national security. And, as the Boston Marathon bombing shows, Chechen jihadists are not solely a threat to Russia, but to us as well.

Third, how certain are we about who is responsible for the recent chemical weapons attacks? Today, George Kenney has an excellent article on the Huffington Post, which notes:

… it remains far from clear who did it. None of the many insurgent groups are saints; to be honest, with the fighting going against the insurgency in recent months there would be far greater incentives on their side to use chemical weapons, in the hope of triggering western intervention, than there would be on the part of Syrian government forces. …

During the Bosnian civil war the Bosnian Muslims skillfully leveraged the propaganda value of various massacres to catalyze western intervention. Yet in many cases the identity of the perpetrators was in doubt. From my own several stays in the besieged city of Sarajevo during the war, my own inspection of alleged mortar impact sites (from the “flower” a mortar/bomb impact leaves in pavement an expert can estimate direction and angle of attack), and my conversations both with very senior, serving U.S. officers (one major general, for example, told me if it had always been the Serbs he only wished the U.S. Army had a few mortar squads with that ability to make impossible shots) and with senior UN military officers on the scene, I concluded that some of the more sensational attacks, such as the Markale massacre, were carried out by Bosnian Muslim forces against their own civilians. A few seasoned western reporters concluded the same. To be fair, the evidence was never absolutely definitive and a rancorous debate continues to this day. Shocking, but such is the nature of war.

Fourth, do we have any options other than doing nothing or attacking Assad? Most accounts assume those are our only two options, but as George Kenney’s article concludes:

If the U.S. government feels that it has to do something, the best thing and, to be honest, the only thing — at the moment — is to provide assistance to the millions of Syrian refugees and internally displaced, and redouble our efforts at diplomacy.

A diplomatic solution would be the best of all possible worlds, but will never happen so long as our bottom line is “Assad must go.” Given the fate of some other deposed Middle East rulers – Gaddafi was killed and Mubarak was thrown in jail – there is no way Assad will negotiate on those terms.

Given our painful experiences in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, isn’t it time we thought things through more carefully before pulling the trigger on military action yet again?

Martin Hellman

Links to all posts in this series on Avoiding Needless Wars: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8.

Additional Reference: After I wrote this post, a highly relevant interview came to my attention in today’s Christian Science Monitor. The headline gives the gist, “In an interview, Hans Blix (chief UN arms inspector for Iraq from 2000-2003) says: If US military action in Syria is all about ‘punishing’ Bashar al-Assad to satisfy public and media opinion without even hearing the UN inspectors report, it will be a sad day for international legality.” Blix makes a number of important points which warrant our attention before taking military action.

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The rocks of Yucca Mountain

crosssection2As I noted in last week’s posting, nuclear reactors produce high-level radioactive waste during their normal operation. This waste is not voluminous, but it can be dangerous and it needs to be sequestered in an out-of-the-way location for several millennia – in the 70 years since the first nuclear reactor was built there have been a number of suggested solutions for HLW disposal – some have advocated letting it melt its way into the Antarctic ice cap, others pushed for sinking containers into the deep and stable sediments of the ocean’s abyssal plains. Neither of these are now considered viable options (not to mention being forbidden by international treaty), leaving the nuclear nations with few options – the two that are being pursued by most nations are dry cask storage and burial in a deep geologic repository.

As radioactive elements decay to stability they give off radiation; when this radiation is absorbed by matter it deposits energy, which raises the temperature of whatever it is that’s absorbing the energy – the energy given off by radioactive decay is called decay heat and it can be significant. NASA makes use of this to help power their spacecraft – their plutonium-powered radio-isotopic thermal generators (RTGs) produce enough energy via radioactive decay to keep the spacecraft running for decades. Spent reactor fuel produces even more decay heat than do NASA’s RTGs, which is why fresh spent fuel is kept immersed in water at first.

The first fission products produced are predominantly short-lived radionuclides and they quickly decay to longer-lived atoms. This means that the rate at which energy is given off – and the degree of heating – drops over time. After six months the spent reactor fuel is substantially cooler – both thermally and radiologically – than it was when first removed from the reactor. During these first months – actually for the first few years – enough heat is given off that the best coolant is water; with time the heat production is low enough that water is no longer needed as a coolant. This is the point at which the two storage options – dry cask versus geological burial – come into play.

In dry cask storage the spent fuel is placed into huge concrete and steel casks. The decay heat permeates through the cask and thence into the atmosphere – the casks may be warm, but the spent fuel remains cool enough to remain undamaged. I visited a dry cask storage facility in Lithuania several years ago – the casks were at least 10 feet tall and 6 feet in diameter and weighed several tons. At the moment there are a number of nuclear power plants authorized to use dry cask storage and more are contemplating it as they run out of room in their spent fuel pools. The biggest fly in the ointment is that dry cask storage isn’t a permanent solution to the HLW problem – it takes millennia for the longer-lived nuclides to decay away and, at best, the casks will likely last only a century. In fact, some are showing signs of physical decay already and may last only a few decades. Simply put, dry cask storage is not a long-term solution for HLW disposal.

This is the reason that a number of nations are looking at deep geologic repositories for HLW disposal. Put the waste in a deep and stable rock formation, the thinking goes, and it will remain isolated from the environment for as long as we need. As of this writing, five nations (Belgium, France, Korea, Sweden, and Switzerland) are using geologic repositories, and facilities in another several nations are either under construction or have applied for operating licenses.

When it comes to geologic repositories, not all rock is created equal. Rock is not always a solid, impermeable mass – rocks crack and break, some rocks are fractured and faulted, and some are naturally porous. Since over time water will dissolve just about anything, we will want to try to keep water away from our radioactive waste – that way it can’t corrode the canisters, can’t dissolve the spent fuel, and can’t carry the radioactivity into the environment. Ideally, the rock used to contain high-level radioactive waste for hundreds of millennia should be able to keep that waste isolated from the environment – it should be tough, impermeable, and dry.

Some rocks disqualify themselves fairly quickly. Limestone, for example, is soluble, which is why there are so many beautiful caves in limestone country – Mammoth Caves is one of the best-known. Sandstone is porous and conducts water nicely, which rules it out, and both shale and slate fracture quite easily. Most high-level waste repositories that are in operation or that are planned are in granite – a tough, impermeable igneous rock. But there’s another approach that can be used – isolating the waste in a medium that’s impermeable but that will flow around the waste containers, sealing it in for the ages. That’s the approach being taken at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), which is dug into a thick layer of salt. Over the years, the salt will deform and flow around the waste containers, locking in the waste for millions of years. Other HLW repositories are placed in clay formations, which will also flow around the waste, or into plastic sedimentary rocks. In all of these cases the idea is to put the waste into a layer of rock that will keep water away from the waste and that will keep the waste away from the environment for the requisite amount of time.

The rock at Yucca Mountain is neither granite nor a plastic material that will entomb the waste – Yucca Mountain is made primarily of rocks called tuff and ignimbrite – also called pyroclastics. Both of these rocks are the remnants of ancient volcanic eruptions – volcanic ash and debris that fell and that solidified into a solid mass. Both of these rocks can be very porous – some tuffs have a porosity of over 50% (meaning that half of their volume consists of pore space) – but they are not necessarily permeable. In other words, they might be built like a sponge, with lots of pores and holes, but the pores aren’t well-connected so there aren’t many pathways for water to easily flow. Not only that, but over time other minerals have formed in much of the pore space, blocking what flow paths do exist.

What all of this means is that the rocks of which Yucca Mountain is composed should do a fairly good job of keeping water away from the waste that would be stored there, but the rock might not be monolithic. In fact, virtually all rock everywhere is riven by cracks and faults and these can act as conduits to lead water from the surface to the spaces below. And, indeed, the rocks that comprise Yucca Mountain are fractured and faulted. The question is whether or not these will let enough water into the waste repository quickly enough to rot the waste storage containers.

The answer to this seems to be “it depends.” For example, water will flow more quickly along fractures and cracks, but the water will also deposit secondary minerals along this path and these minerals will eventually help to seal off the cracks (this same process is behind the beautiful crystalline linings of geodes). Both of these seem to have happened at Yucca Mountain in the past – geologists have found these secondary minerals lining fractures in the rock, indicating the past flow of water through the fissures, but the mineralization has also served to clog these conduits. So the question should be not so much “are there fractures” so much as “how much water can flow along these fractures?” In the case of Yucca Mountain we need to consider not only the permeability of these fissures, but also the amount of rain and groundwater available to percolate.

At present, Yucca Mountain is in the middle of a fairly dry piece of real estate where the annual rainfall is only a handful of inches annually. But climate changes over time – the Sahara was a fairly lush grassland within the last few tens of thousands of years – so we can’t guarantee that the current dry conditions will last until all of the radioactivity is gone. But that’s a topic for the next posting – which will be on the hydrogeology of Yucca Mountain. For now, let it suffice to say that the rock that makes up the mountain is not ideal due to its porosity and the occasional fracture and fault. However, secondary mineralization seems to have plugged the majority of the cracks and holes. Thus, while not as tough as granite and not as impermeable as salt or clay, the rocks of Yucca Mountain seem up to the task to which they might someday be put.

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Yucca Mountain

Yucca_Mountain_2In the mid-1990s I was on a technical advisory committee to the organization that was working to find a location for a low-level radioactive waste disposal facility that was to service several states in the Midwest. Even with stringent siting criteria there were a number of locations that would have been acceptable; what stopped the process was that the Midwest Compact decided to pull the plug – changes on the national level made it more attractive to continue using existing sites than to start up a new one. At present, there are a number of sites for the disposal of low-level radioactive waste, but the nation is still struggling to answer a question that many nations have already satisfactorily addressed – where to put the nation’s high-level radioactive waste. This process has recently come up in the news again. This is an important topic – one that warrants more than a single posting – so I’d like to discuss various aspects of the science behind high-level radioactive waste disposal in general, and of Yucca Mountain in particular, over the space of the next few weeks. But first I’d like to start with an overview of where high-level radioactive waste (HLW) comes from and a little bit of history on this topic. So history this week, then we’ll get into the science.


By definition HLW is “highly radioactive material produced as a byproduct of the reactions that occur inside nuclear reactors.” It includes both spent reactor fuel (fuel removed from the reactor because it no longer has enough fissionable U-235 to easily sustain a chain reaction) and waste produced during the reprocessing of spent fuel. HLW can be hot – both thermally and radioactively – and it has to be handled with care. Not only that, but some of the nuclides remain hot for decades to millennia so it has to be kept secure for at least as long as the Pyramids have been standing. There are a lot of factors that enter into storing HLW safely – too many to go into here, but they’ll be dealt with in upcoming posts.

All nuclear reactors produce HLW during their operation – a typical reactor will be refueled every year or two; during a refueling outage much of the fuel is shuffled around in the core and the remainder is removed. In other nations the spent fuel is reprocessed – plutonium that was produced during reactor operations is removed and residual fissionable U-235 can be removed as well; whatever’s left over is disposed of as HLW. Until recently plans were to dispose of HLW beneath Yucca Mountain, located in the Nevada desert. Here’s what happened.

In 1982, realizing that the US needed a long-term plan for high-level waste, the Nuclear Waste Policy Act was enacted into law. This law tasked the Department of Energy (DOE) with developing a repository, the Environmental Protection Agency was instructed to develop environmental safety standards and to evaluate a repository’s safety, and the Nuclear Regulatory Agency was told to develop appropriate regulations. DOE started a long process that led them to Yucca Mountain. Without getting into the details, by 1987 the DOE was beginning to investigate its suitability as a deep geologic repository and Congress approved it in 2002. Instead of solving the issue, though, this only seemed to serve as incentive to those opposed to the site – both inside and outside of Nevada. Both scientific studies and legal/political opposition continued until 2011, when Congress pulled the plug on Yucca Mountain. And there’s where the issue seemed to rest until just recently, when the issue came up yet again. At present it seems the issue isn’t settled after all (the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia recently voted 2-1 that the Yucca Mountain licensing process must continue) – but who knows what will happen next year.

At the same time, all of our nuclear power plants are continuing to operate and to produce HLW. At first it was stored on-site in wet storage – immersed in water. As the spent fuel pools began to fill up the nuclear power plants got permission to re-rack their fuel (the spacing of the spent fuel rods is carefully controlled to prevent the possibility of a criticality). With pools continuing to fill up – and still no place to permanently take the waste – the NRC authorized dry cask storage – taking the spent fuel out of the swimming pool and putting it into land-based casks. And that’s where matters stand today – over 50 individual reactor sites are storing their HLW on site in a combination of dry casks and re-racked swimming pools.

There have been a ton of claims and counter-claims about Yucca Mountain – the scientific aspects of these claims can be evaluated on their scientific merits; the social, economic, and political aspects are a little more complex. In the next few weeks we’ll look at things such as hydrogeology, seismic risks, waste container integrity, geology, and how they affect the ability of the site to safely contain HLW. The goal will be to present some of the claims made by both the pro- and anti-Yucca Mountain advocates, to review some of the basic science, and to try to use the science to evaluate the claims. I’ll try to leave the social, economic, and political issues out of the discussion since they lie outside my area of primary expertise – but at the very least we can try to dispense with the scientific and technical issues.

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