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Down on the Mountain
by Jessica Garcia
Apr 08, 2009 | 1635 views | 7 7 comments | 5 5 recommendations | email to a friend | print
<a href=>Tribune/Debra Reid</a> - An aerial view of Yucca Mountain, dated 1984, dominates Bruce Breslow's office in Carson City. The former Sparks mayor now oversees the Agency for Nuclear Projects for the state of Nevada.
Tribune/Debra Reid - An aerial view of Yucca Mountain, dated 1984, dominates Bruce Breslow's office in Carson City. The former Sparks mayor now oversees the Agency for Nuclear Projects for the state of Nevada.
From former Sparks mayor and planning commissioner to a student of Nevada’s controversial Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, Bruce Breslow has been tackling an issue that he says is “very hard to get your mind around.”

Over the last five months, Breslow has immersed himself in all aspects of the project: political, scientific, environmental and moral.

“There’s a political solution and then there’s the current license application, which is still going forward and President (Barack) Obama has publicly said that Yucca is not an option,” Breslow said. “But the administration and the energy secretary have not withdrawn the energy department’s application.”

Breslow was appointed by Gov. Jim Gibbons in December to serve as the executive director of the state’s Agency for Nuclear Projects (NPA). He and his staff, which over the last 20 years has shrunk from 25 people to just four, are working to present alternatives to hosting a waste dump in Nevada.

Legally, the license application process is complex and time-consuming, Breslow said. According to the NPA, as of Dec. 22, 2008, 318 contentions against the Yucca Mountain depository had been filed, 229 of which were from the state of Nevada. The contentions consisted of 1,800 pages, or 16 full-size binders of documents.

Breslow followed the NPA legal team’s oral arguments in front of several groups last week, one of which was the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board Panel, which will decide on May 11 how many of those contentions will be heard.

At a hearing of the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board Panel last week, Nuclear Regulatory Commission Judge Alan Rosenthal chastised the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) response to the contentions, which, Breslow said, showed total disinterest in hearing Nevada’s arguments.

“I discovered to my amazement that the Department of Energy was taking the position that not a single one of the ... 229 separate contentions filed by the state of Nevada was admissible,” Rosenthal said. “... Should, however ... we conclude that a significant number of the Nevada contentions are clearly admissible, with the consequence that the objection to their admission was wholly substantial, for me at least, both DOE and the NRC staff will have lost credibility.”

One of the more “colorful” of the 229 contentions, Breslow explained, is the lack of technology needed to maintain the interior of Yucca Mountain where the waste would be stored.

“The Department of Energy feels in order to keep the material safe inside of Yucca, we’d need to install 11,000 titanium drip shields,” he said. “But they don’t plan to install them for another 100 years and they’d have to be installed by robots with no margin for error to be effective because no human could survive the environment.”

Such robots don’t exist today, he said.

“They can’t even get the technology right for a video conference, let alone inside a mountain with temperatures above boiling and radiation,” he said. “We think that’s one of the fatal flaws.”

After months of collaboration with politicians and scientists, Breslow has come to an important conclusion.

“You couldn’t have found a worse site (for the project),” Breslow said. “One of the most important things I learned is it would be the only site in the world (with nuclear waste) stored permanently above the water table. The rainwater leaks through the mountain. It’s not as impervious like the energy department thought originally.”

Breslow said the site has fractured rocks, which would leave damp tunnels and the radiation exposure from the waste would seep into the groundwater. A better solution would be to use dry casks for storage above ground that would stay at the plants where the waste is produced. In such casks, Breslow said, the nuclear waste could be stored more than 100 years.

“It’s my feeling and our experts’ feeling that science and technology will catch up while we have dry casks,” he said. “The other option is to move waste to an interim site and store it there while, once again, there’d be the same issues with transportation. ... The DOE said it would use 90 percent rail, but we can’t see how we would come close to that.”

Breslow said the DOE has yet to come up with specific plans for transportation except to say it would not upgrade the existing public transportation infrastructure to accommodate waste transported by trucks.

The longtime Sparks resident said his outlook on Yucca has changed since he took the position as executive director.

“I was like quite a few Nevadans, saying, ‘Why don’t we look at taking billions of dollars in exchange for the waste?’ he said. “And as I got involved with looking into it, I realized there’s no such fund, no such monies available.

“The most Nevada would have ever had would possibly be $10 million and up to $20 million, but that money would go to training and HAZMAT and transportation routes,” he said. “It’s not something that would have absolved our budget, nor is the project any good.”
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Abe Van Luik
April 09, 2009
“One of the most important things I learned is it would be the only site in the world (with nuclear waste) stored permanently above the water table. The rainwater leaks through the mountain. It’s not as impervious like the energy department thought originally.”

No one ever thought it was impervious, neither does it need to be. Crystalline rock like granite (repositories in Finland and Sweden are to go into granite) is also not impervious. Clay (France, Switzerland, maybe others willuse clay or clay-rich shale) and salt (Germany and the US at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant /WIPP/ in New Mexico) come closest to being impervious.

But each rock type has its own challenges. Sweden and Finland are looking at a million-plus-year waste package, and then a clay layer between the packages and the rock to assure that water flowing through fractures in that rock will not be accessible to radioactivity from a failed container until it has diffused through this tight clay layer.

Yucca Mountain will see some seepage, and so the engineered system is enhanced to cope with that for an extremely long time. Evaluations of long-term safety suggest it is very safe if it is built as proposed.

As far as benefits to the host community, I have no clue what is possible, that is up to Congress to decide.

The city of Carlsbad in New Mexico has boasted in its newspaper that it has benefitted materially and achieved significant economic diversification (they were a potash mining town, and the mines closed)all because they host the WIPP repository. A call to Carlsbad mayor about how they negotiated, and what they negotiated, in trade for that smaller repository might be enlightening.
April 09, 2009
Has anyone noticed that when a state job opens up, it goes to Breslow even if he does not know what he is doing? He was appointed to the State Transportation Board and he openly stated that he knew nothing of what it did, but heck; it paid $80,000. Now, he is put in a more critical job and he does not have a clue. First Guinn now Gibbons. This is pathetic. He also sucked as mayor of Sparks.
Abe Van Luik
April 09, 2009
I give up, the paragraph starts out with "A further consideration is that if . . .

But it keeps being deleted when I hit the "post' button.
Abe Van Luik
April 09, 2009
The UN's International Atomic Energy Agency published a report in 2003 entitled: "The Long Term Storage of Radioactive Waste: Safety and Sustainability; A Position Paper of International Experts." Here are some excerpts from pages 11 and 12 that address the wisdom of leaving the waste where it is, in about a hundred locations, most near big cities and waterways:

<<. . . Long term surface storage is not the best option from the security point of view because spent nuclear fuel and high level wastes in surface storage are more vulnerable to theft and sabotage. Security considerations, which carry increasing weight, lead strongly and unequivocally to disposal being

desirable at as early a date as is reasonable. Placing the waste material underground, even without finally closing the facility, greatly increases the difficulty of access to the material by unauthorized persons.

geological disposal provides a good level of safety it is not necessary, or even responsible financial management, to expend further resources on the development of alternatives. >>

On that last point, despite the article's insinuations to the contrary, a good case has been made for the safety of a Yucca Mountain repository:
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