Spent Fuel Belongs in Yucca Mountain, by Gerald E. Marsh and George S. Stanford

In approving Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham’s recommendation to open Yucca Mountain as the nation’s first long-term nuclear repository, President George W. Bush says that moving ahead with the repository “is necessary to protect public safety, health, and the nation’s security.”

Nevada’s Governor, Kenny Guinn, objects. He maintains that the national-security aspect “is an absurd invention of the nuclear industry and an opportunistic use of the tragedies of September 11.”

That is not only dangerously shortsighted – it’s wrong.

The Governor forgets that, in light of September 11, the main danger lies in retaining the radioactive material at reactor sites in cooling pools, which are somewhat vulnerable to terrorist attack.

That risk should not be exaggerated, but it is far from “absurd.”

As put by Secretary Abraham, “More than 161 million people live within 75 miles of one or more of these sites. They should be able to withstand current terrorist threats, but that may not remain the case in the future. These materials would be far better secured in a deep underground repository at Yucca Mountain.”

Sure, the nuclear industry stands to benefit from the opening of Yucca Mountain – but so do the rest of us. It will take years to complete the job, but we should start moving the spent fuel away from densely populated areas as soon as we can.

The opponents of forging ahead say they are afraid there might be a leak from the repository thousands of years hence. That fear is utterly unrealistic. Nevada already has far more plutonium and fission products underground – totally unconfined, and posing no threat to people – than would ever be expected to leak from the Yucca Mountain repository. At least four tons of plutonium remains at the Nevada nuclear test site as bomb-test residue, along with a much greater amount of radioactivity due to fission products.

Governor Guinn has vowed that “Nevada will now pursue every means available to ensure that the laws of science and the nation ultimately prevail.” And so it should. But the Governor has been misinformed.

The laws of science do not support his position.

The laws of science and logic say that one should compare risk to the public of the various options for handling the waste. That has been done, and Secretary Abraham has finally made the correct decision, in accordance with the law of the land.

Furthermore, the laws of science say that spent reactor fuel is not really “waste.” The material is excellent fuel for advanced reactors – ones that can consume almost all of the long-lived radioactive isotopes, producing waste that only needs to be isolated for less than 500 years instead of more than 10,000.

We can stop worrying about transporting spent fuel, too. Compared with what we now live with, the risk is trivial. Between 1982 and 1992, spills of gasoline and other chemicals in U.S. transportation accidents caused 107 deaths, over 1,400 injuries and evacuation of more that 13,000 people.

Nuclear shipments have been involved in traffic mishaps too, but as far as we know there has never, ever, been even one death or injury due to radiation released in a transportation accident – anywhere in the world. Passing through Illinois, the state we live in, there will be a daily grand total of maybe five shipments of radioactive waste, in extremely rugged containers. Big deal. There are probably a thousand times as many gasoline deliveries.

The go-ahead for Yucca Mountain should have been given years ago.

Instead of feeding the NIMBY – “not in my back yard” – syndrome, Governor Guinn should welcome the federal money, high-paying jobs, and other benefits that opening Yucca Mountain will bring to Nevada.

That’s a good return for hosting a facility with entirely negligible risk.


Gerald Marsh is a physicist who served with the U.S. START delegation and was a consultant to the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations on strategic nuclear policy and technology for many years. He is on the advisory board of the Center for The National Public Policy Research. 

George Stanford is a nuclear reactor physicist, now retired from Argonne National Laboratory after a career of experimental work pertaining to power-reactor safety.

The National Center for Public Policy Research is a communications and research foundation supportive of a strong national defense and dedicated to providing free market solutions to today’s public policy problems. We believe that the principles of a free market, individual liberty and personal responsibility provide the greatest hope for meeting the challenges facing America in the 21st century.