Thursday, January 31, 2019

Who needs a "Screw Nevada" bill when you can just screw Nevada anyway?

January 31, 2019

Dear Readers,

A couple of decades ago, at the height of the fervor (now almost completely abandoned) to build Yucca Mountain and ship all the high level nuclear waste the country had produced up to that time to Nevada, a bill in Congress -- needed to make it happen -- was referred to as the: "Screw Nevada" bill.

Strong opposition from elected representatives from Nevada, and from citizens along the millions of miles of routes on which the tens of thousands of shipments of the waste would have to travel, killed the bill. At a public hearing, this author saw the then-mayor of Las Vegas, Oscar Goodman (his wife is now the mayor), say he would throw any trucker in jail if they tried to go through his city with nuclear waste -- which they almost surely have to do, to get to Yucca Mountain from, for example, California's two operating nuclear power plants (at Diablo Canyon) and from five closed reactor sites (three at San Onofre and one each at Humboldt Bay and Rancho Seco).

Oh, and don't forget one of the main reasons the bill was abandoned: Dry Cask Storage was adopted.

It was claimed -- although everyone knew it wasn't really true, at least not for "beyond design basis events" -- that on-site semi-permanent dry storage of nuclear waste on site was/is safe. It wasn't, it isn't, it never can be, but here we are. There are now about 300 dry casks storing about 5,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel rods at several dozen sites around the country, with a new cask loaded somewhere every week or two. These casks are: Targets for terrorists, targets for ballistic missiles, targets for earthquakes (beyond "design basis" earthquakes that is -- which are entirely possible, just somewhat less likely than "design basis" earthquakes). Targets for volcanic activity, accidental airplane strikes.

Targets even for meteors.

Yucca Mountain, a terrible idea, would at least have protected the nuclear waste from SOME meteor strikes. But visit Arizona's Barringer Meteor Crater -- nearly a mile wide, barely 50,000 years old, and less than 400 miles from Yucca Mountain. The Barringer Crater was created by an object estimated to be less than 500 feet across, much of which is probably still buried deep underneath the 560 foot-deep crater.

There are thousand of similar -- and larger -- objects hurtling around the sun that cross earth's orbital distance of about 93 million miles. Rid yourself of any notion that Yucca Mountain -- or anywhere on earth -- can protect nuclear waste from meteor impacts.

Yucca Mountain was abandoned, and the strongest arguments against it did not come from the citizens along the transportation routes, or the will of the people of Nevada -- or even the existence of a lousy, temporary alternative: It came from within the mountain itself. Water dripping through it. In dry, desert conditions, the mountain nevertheless holds onto some portion whatever rains do come, and that water seeps through the mountain, over a period of years or decades, and enters the tunnel that has been dug to hold the nuclear waste.

So "drip shields" were proposed, to place over each dry cask: Four inches thick, solid titanium. Expensive, unwieldy, and unworkable because they wouldn't last long enough, and might collapse onto the dry cask, damaging it and possibly breaching it.

And those weren't the only problems, but they are typical unsolvable problems with Yucca Mountain.

Other problems include a water table underneath that would -- not could, but would -- eventually be contaminated as the casks aged, breached, and spilled their contents -- which was fully expected some time in the future, after the site was capped -- or if an accident inside the tunnel (such as a cave-in or a drip shield impact on a dry cask) caused a breach even sooner.

And volcanic activity in the area. And flash floods. And an earthquake fault between the water table and the mountain. And a city of over two million people (and 40 million tourists a year, including the author) less than 100 miles away. And on and on and on.

The plutonium would need to be isolated from humans for about half a million years. The uranium, for billions of years.

Half a million years ago the continents were miles away from where they are now, and shaped significantly differently. There were ice ages and thaws betwixt then and now. Humans as we know them (homo sapiens -- us (or at least most of us)) didn't even exist.

A lot can happen in half a million years, let alone, billions of years.

Decrepit rail and road infrastructure -- which continues to decay -- was yet another reason Yucca Mountain was abandoned. It would cost hundreds of billions of dollars -- perhaps more than a trillion dollars -- to upgrade the rail system to "safely" (I use the term loosely!) transport nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain -- most trips averaging over 1,000 miles, and approximately 2/3rds of the country lives within 50 miles of a proposed nuclear waste shipping route.

All the transportation problems, as well as water seepage problems, flash flood problems, faults and many others -- also apply to moving the nuclear waste to New Mexico, which is the current plan for "solving" (I use the term loosely!) the nuclear waste problem today -- temporarily, until a permanent site is built. Proponents of the New Mexico waste repository cite Yucca Mountain as the presumed eventual permanent location, despite all the problems cited above, and several hundred more technical problems than had been identified by scientists hired by Nevada and California, none of which the Department of Energy had -- or has -- solved.

And by "solving the nuclear waste problem" what I really mean is: "giving the nuclear utilities a way to rid themselves of a huge liability and keep on making more nuclear waste." And what I ALSO mean is: "blocking the adoption of renewable energy options" and "keeping electricity prices absurdly high" (not "too cheap to meter" like the nuclear industry promised when it began).

Which brings us to today. This week, it was announced that the Department of Energy had already shipped half a metric ton of weapons-grade plutonium to Nevada, not only against Nevada's explicit wishes, but before Nevada had even gone to court to block the proposed shipment -- which they did in November of last year (2018), a case which is now considered (at least by the Justice Department) to be "moot," in part because the DOE claims it won't do it again, and in part because the waste is already in Nevada and there is little chance it will ever leave the state -- unless of course, it gets released into the environment somehow, either by going critical all by itself, due to a configuration calculation error, or because of an accident of some sort (a "beyond design basis" accident, of course), or an act of terrorism (ANY act of terrorism is considered a "beyond design basis" accident because the regulators consider acts of terrorism to be stopped before they happen), or who-knows-what.

If the plutonium is released to the environment, it can kill in vanishingly small quantities -- a few millionths of a gram -- a speck the size of a fleck of pepper or a grain of salt -- is enough to cause lung cancer. Sailors aboard the U.S.S. Ronald Reagan, which for a while was within 50 miles of the Fukushima meltdowns, are now sick with leukemia, thyroid cancer, testicular and ovarian cancers, brain and spinal cord cancers -- and some have already died. Fukushima farmers are growing crops on contaminated soil that Japan plans to feed to Olympic athletes at the Summer Games in Tokyo next year (two Olympic venues are even in Fukushima Prefecture). Macaque monkeys in the area are giving birth to offspring with smaller brains and heads.

Lawyers from Nevada assert that the issue of transporting plutonium to their state is NOT moot, especially because DOE lied to them about the previous shipment. And DOE lied to a federal court about it, too. And DOE lied to the people of Nevada and to the people along the transportation routes. And it's especially not moot because DOE actually plans to ship a another half metric ton of plutonium to Nevada by 2020. Or ship it somewhere, because they are required (by a prior federal court decision) to move it away from South Carolina by then.

So New Mexico had better watch out -- it might go there. Or perhaps worse, Holtec might start shipping nuclear waste canisters to New Mexico sooner than expected -- even before the planned "interim" storage site is built! Those shipments might even have already started -- there is no way to know because a dry cask can be stored (temporarily, of course!) under a tent or in any building with a large enough space to hold it (and a large enough opening to get it there). Dry casks can be transported in unmarked containers because marking the containers is considered a security risk -- as is publicizing the transport routes, times and quantities.

And the containers themselves are hardly protected against major and foreseeable accidents along the way: Crush resistance, puncture resistance, fire resistance, impact resistance -- all these things are designed to meet limits the Nuclear Regulatory Commission thinks are reasonable. The NRC limits are determined by what is financially affordable versus what is considered unlikely -- in other words, if some level of protection is too expensive, no problem -- just assume an event needing that level of protection is unlikely, and you can ignore it!

That's how they think. It's even got a name: ALARA, which stands for "As Low As Reasonably Achievable" and is the entire basis for the nuclear industry existing at all. Without ALARA -- and a related piece of legislation, known as the Price Anderson Nuclear Industries Indemnity Act, which strictly limits a utilities' liability. Without ALARA and Price-Anderson, there would be no nuclear industry at all.

DOE is criminally negligent -- of America's public lands, of our citizens, of our future and of our money. Billions of dollars are still being spent by DOE every year to design new, unneeded nuclear power plants (including utterly wasteful, dangerous, and inefficient "Small Modular Reactors"), and billions of dollars are NOT being spent that needs to be spent for cleanup of polluted nuclear sites such as Hanford and hundreds of other locations across the country.

DOE makes and maintains nuclear bombs, too. They are a self-sustaining horror, a money pit, and blight upon the planet -- which is why they are sometimes referred to as the "Death Of the Earth" squad.

Ace Hoffman
Carlsbad, California


Ace Hoffman
Author, The Code Killers:
An Expose of the Nuclear Industry
Free download:
Carlsbad, CA
Email: ace [at]