The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 40.0°F | Overcast


Death Mountain And Mobile Chernobyls

Brice C. Smith

Friday was the 16th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, the worst nuclear accident in history. At 1:23 a.m. on April 26, 1986 the Chernobyl 4 reactor suffered a catastrophic failure, killing 31 people immediately and sending out a radioactive cloud that would contaminate 207,000 square miles and cause 30,000 deaths.

Students at MIT took this anniversary to raise awareness about the single most important nuclear decision to face the American people since Eisenhower launched his ironically named “atoms-for-peace” program in 1953, which lead to the global proliferation of toxic waste and the emergence of second-generation nuclear powers such as India, Pakistan, and Israel. The new decision is about Bush’s plan to go ahead with the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste depository.

The plan calls for the storage of up to 77,000 metric tons of waste at Yucca which will be retrievable for 100 years. After that, the mountain is to be sealed for at least 10,000 years. Of course little notice is given to the fact that the half-life of plutonium, the most dangerous element in high-level waste given its toxicity and its easy use in nuclear weapons, is 24,000 years and thus even 100,000 years from now, there would still be enough plutonium in Yucca to build 8,500 Nagasaki-style bombs or to kill tens of millions of people.

Beyond the fact that the longest viable government in human history existed for just over 3,500 years, there are three reasons to oppose this plan: the questions as to the suitability of Yucca Mountain, the immense risks of transporting the waste thousands of miles through hundreds of cities, and the fact that Yucca would lead to a golden age for nuclear power facilitating widespread proliferation of reactors.

First, as to the suitability of Yucca, the GAO’s own report details more than 300 scientific questions that it feels must be resolved before going ahead with the plan. The government has not even done a simple environmental impact analysis to see what the consequences of the construction might be, and there is even evidence that the fault line which runs directly under Yucca is not only active, but has shown large movements in the recent past.

Second is the most widely discussed problem, the risk of sending up to 96,000 shipments of this waste through 43 states and near hundreds of major cities. The DOE claims that this waste is shipped all the time without incident, but it has never been shipped on this scale (roughly one shipment a day for decades). Not to mention the fact that there have been at least four spills in the past requiring cleanup. The DOE claims that the containers are tested to withstand any accident is also patently false. For instance, the casks are test-burned at 1,475 degrees for 30 minutes, but in rural areas the nearest fire department may be up to two hours away and the nearest hazmat team even further. In addition, in July 2000 a train caught fire in a tunnel beneath Baltimore and burned for four days at temperatures up to 1,500 degrees. This same tunnel is a possible route for rods coming from the Calvert Cliffs nuclear plant. In addition, the report grossly underestimates the risk of terrorist attack by ignoring many scenarios in which the canisters wouldn’t survive.

Of course little is mentioned about the risks of packing the spent rods, because if an accident were to occur, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission admits that a major fire is possible which could release 25 times more radioactive material than Chernobyl. According to Gordon Thompson, a senior scientist at the Institute for Resource and Security Studies, such a fire could render 29,000 square miles uninhabitable. A 1997 report by Brookhaven National Labs estimated such an accident would cause more than 28,000 cancer deaths and $59 billion in damage.

Third is the potential for Yucca to revitalize the floundering nuclear industry. Currently, there is only five to ten more years of available, cheap, on-site storage for nuclear waste. If Yucca comes online in 2010, it would allow the current reactors to continue running until their licenses expire and for new reactors to be built.

The current reactors are already aging poorly and accidents are becoming more common. In February 2000 the Indian Point 2 reactor released 20,000 gallons of radioactive water when its generator ruptured. The company knew of the problem with the generator years in advance, but chose not to fix it because deregulation made it cheaper to continue running. The Zion reactors were shut down in 1998 after the NRC ruled that ComEd was incapable of safely operating the plant. And just this year, at the Davis-Besse plant a few miles from Toledo, it was discovered that boric acid had eaten a hole all the way through the six-inch-thick steel top of the reactor vessel leaving only a 3/8th inch thick lining of stainless steel to hold in the cooling water under a pressure of more than 2,200 PSI. Before this, no one thought this type of corrosion was even remotely possible.

In addition to the safety of the current reactors, allowing them to run out their licenses would take us from having under 40,000 metric tons of waste to having nearly 80,000 metric tons. If new reactors are built, as is called for in Bush’s energy plan, we would be left in 50 years with the same problem we have today of waste spread around the country in vulnerable on-site storage and we would also have Yucca full of the greatest concentration of toxic waste ever imagined by humanity. Of course, that assumes that there is no major disaster, which is hardly a defensible assumption.

Finally, for those who believe we must have new reactors to prevent global warming, let me point out one simple example. England’s chief scientific advisor recently called for the construction of new reactors. The nuclear industry was all for this, but warned that it would need a nine billion pound ($13.1 billion) subsidy as well as assurances for billions more for the transport and storage of waste in order to make the plan economically viable for them. Beyond the shear insanity of trading one environmental catastrophe for another, the real question has to be how much could greenhouse emissions be reduced if that $13 billion were applied to conservation programs and the development of renewable energy sources?

It is rare in life to be faced with a decision that will affect so many people for such a long time. As citizens and as scientists, if we do not address the dangers of Yucca Mountain, we will unleash a potential catastrophe unthinkable to previous generations and leave the sword of Damocles dangling over humanity’s head for hundreds of thousands of years to come.