Nuclear Power: The Future Is Bleak

A small desert town simmered lazily in the hot Nevada sun. The once lively line of small shops and diners had become a ghost town, including the tumbleweeds that drifted across the street. The unnerving silence was shattered by the clacking of train tracks as a large self-driving train rolled through the center of the abandoned town. The cargo cars of the train were decorated with the nuclear waste symbol. The bright red and yellow would have caught the eyes of all who stood nearby, however, there were no people around to stare. The abandoned stores stopped their shaking as the train passed into the horizon toward the nearby destroyed mountain, leaving nothing except a brief break from the silence on the abandoned town.

Image showing the proximity of Armargosa valley to the proposed Yucca Mountain site (denoted in red). An inch represents 5 miles. (Credit: Google Maps)

This image may seem like a scene from a movie about a massive war, or even a zombie infested world. But unfortunately, in Armargosa Valley Nevada, this fate may become reality without the dead rising from their graves. 

The above illustration highlights a potential worst-case scenario for small towns near nuclear waste sites. For example, Armargosa Valley is a small rural town located about fifteen miles from Yucca Mountain which sits more than one hundred miles from Las Vegas (Yuccamountain.org). In 2002, congressional approval passed to allow Yucca Mountain to become the United States largest nuclear waste disposal site. However, fifteen years later, ground has not been broken and the entire project seems to be stuck in limbo. Currently, the majority of nuclear waste is stored throughout smaller dump sites all over the country. This results in a vast number of people living near or even on a pile of nuclear waste. In the 1980s plans began to consolidate the country’s waste into one central location. The decision to use the Nevada desert for disposal was made for several reasons. These included the secluded location and the fact that radiation has already left its mark on the area due to nuclear weapon tests in the 1940’s. Despite these potential drawbacks the location is not completely abandoned. Small rural towns lie near the proposed Yucca Mountain disposal site, and the residents are not entirely onboard with the project. Immanent domain is always an option; but some environmental groups and politicians oppose the construction leading to even more controversy. The disposal of nuclear waste must remain a top priority to maintain the country’s safety, but the problem of where to put the waste has more solutions than potentially damaging waste dumps near populated areas.

In Armargosa Valley, locals are split down the middle on whether the potential disposal site will be a good thing for their small town. The most common concern for the people living there lies with the potential safety risks associated with nuclear waste. The radioactivity of this waste is not a temporary problem, as according to Sylvie Sherman of Stanford, common types of nuclear waste have half-lives of 22,000 to nearly 15 million years. Clearly, the possibility of waiting for the waste to cause no harm is out of the question as this material could possibly outlive the entire human race. And even though this nuclear waste cannot provide electricity in its current state, it still holds plenty of radiation that can cause cancer, birth defects and even death in people who are exposed to it for too long.

Kyle Roerink of the Las Vegas Sun gathered information from the locals and found that the fear of living near nuclear waste is not the only concern that people in the area have. There is also the potentially dangerous process of transporting the hazardous waste to the facility. Armargosa Valley would be a stop on the way to the Yucca Mountain disposal site, meaning trucks and trains full of harmful material would pass near schools, doctors and people’s homes. Unsurprisingly, the residents of the small rural community are not particularly excited about trucks full of the most dangerous materials on earth mindlessly driving through their town on a daily basis.

Despite the risks involved, some people in these small towns are not completely opposed to the construction of Yucca Mountain. A massive project such as the construction of a new nuclear test site requires hundreds of workers, most of which would come from the local area. Local mayors naturally would like this project to happen based on the potential economic boom that the undertaking would provide. This postured economic boost is the main reason that President Trump’s administration’s proposed budget sets aside nearly 120 million dollars to revive the dormant project. The problem remains that due to presidential involvement of both Trump and Obama, the issue has been divided among party lines. Democrats tend to dislike the project due to environmental impact, while republicans support the project for economic reasons.  Nevada politicians are generally opposed to dumping nuclear waste in the state. Both Las Vegas mayor, Independent Carolyn Goodman and Democrat Nevada senator Harry Reid oppose the decision citing a negative effect on tourism, Nevada’s number one industry (Wolfgang). This political division has attributed to the plant being deadlocked for nearly twenty years, with no compromise in sight for the people of Nevada.

The construction of a nuclear dump site will certainly have an impact on the environment in both the initial construction zone in addition to the surrounding area. The full damage of radiation is evident in areas where a worst-case scenario meltdown has occurred. The Chernobyl site remains mostly abandoned causing damage to plants and animals, and will continue to poison the area for centuries. Potential nuclear contamination from the Yucca Mountain site would similarly cause untold damage to the fragile desert ecosystem. If neglected nuclear runoff were to enter the water table, the entire area would suffer the effects of radiation. The water table in the desert is already extremely limited and the slightest disturbance would cause damage for all creatures fighting for the few drops of water available. This quick and far reaching radiation could cause cancer and genetic defects in anything exposed to it, damaging the ecosystem for generations even after a long and expensive cleanup effort. Fortunately, this is a worst-case scenario. Typically, leak resistant barrels and numerous other safeguards are in place to prevent disaster. But the concern remains that such a large concentration of waste increases the chance for a leak to occur.

The Yucca Mountain site remains even now a firestorm of controversy due to the reasons stated above. The first step in a solution is creating a safeguard to protect people from the damaging effects of radiation. An alternate building site would be the best solution to not only allow an economic boost, but also prevent small towns from suffering unwanted side effects. Even within the Nevada desert, areas off Highway 50 are completely devoid of towns and private homes for nearly 75 miles. The close proximity to the highway would allow for the waste to be transported while lowering the amount of interaction with people. A large site built within ten miles of the highway, in the middle of unoccupied territory would still create construction jobs for the people of Nevada, with the only drawback being the comparatively small cost of a longer commute for employees. If a leak were to occur, the damage could be contained in the empty area preventing any damage to settled communities.

This alternate site solution would limit exposure to people; however, the environmental risks are still apparent. Even though there is no human life, there is still a delicate desert system that could be devastated by a leak. A potential solution to this would require a massive increase in the price of the site, in exchange it could satisfy the concerns of environmentalists. In the case of high level radioactive waste, it would be unwise to simply put the waste in a barrel and bury it. Only nuclear waste with an extremely low level of radiation can safely be buried. To this end, instead of using the site as a massive landfill, a large warehouse or bunker could be constructed to store waste until the radiation levels drop. The additional structure would allow for additional protection by acting as a last line of defense in case a barrel were to begin leaking, which would result in a far less hazardous cleanup process. The overall expense of the project would be astronomical. Although, the initial cost would outweigh the cost of containment and mitigation in the case of a leak, which would require decades of work to minimize the damage.

A second solution would involve lowering the amount of waste that would need to be stored, therefore posing a risk to people and the environment. This would be accomplished through recycling the nuclear waste that is produced. According to William Shugart, the concept was brought to the attention of President Carter in the 1970s. Ultimately the plan to bury waste was chosen due to the high cost of recycling. The process of recycling nuclear waste is a complicated one that would require millions of dollars in research and development. Recycling nuclear waste would need a specialized plant and hundreds of trained employees in order to make it possible. This has been proven to not be impossible however. Japan and France have managed to build these plants with France cutting the amount of nuclear waste by half. Meanwhile in the United States, little more than a proposal to the Department of Energy stands to begin the process of recycling. In the current economic climate, where the concept of investing huge amounts of money into new recycling technology is a non-starter, there will likely not be a push for nuclear energy recycling in this country for years.

The ultimate benefit of recycling will not only create a safer situation for people and the environment, but the decision would yield economic benefits. As stated above, the current administration has set aside 120 million dollars for the Yucca Mountain plant. According to David Schlissel of Synapse Energy, the cost of nuclear power plants can reach up to nine billion dollars when all costs are accounted for. The investment of recycling nuclear waste would allow the country to save money by avoiding the need to build expensive facilities while also protecting people and the environment. Finally, the amount of money spent on obtaining nuclear material for energy would be reduced due to the very nature of recycling. Despite the difficulties involved with recycling nuclear waste, the economic effects of recycling are possibly cheaper than spending money on a costly cleanup effort.

While nuclear energy is touted as a “clean fuel,” the reality is that no source of energy is free from drawbacks. While there is no damaging atmospheric effect from the use of nuclear energy as with coal or fossil fuels, there are still problems that the United States is failing to address. As stated, the problem of where to put the huge amounts of waste is not a priority and is causing just as much environmental damage as less “clean” sources of energy. A potential solution to the problem of disposal is for the United States to come together and push for less damaging forms of energy. Sources such as wind and solar do not have as many negative effects other than the high cost of construction and need for additional research to increase efficiency. While some view nuclear energy as the fuel source of the future, this is unfortunately not the case. For nuclear energy, cost and potential harm cannot possibly allow it to be the answer to the world’s energy crisis. A clean energy future will not be achieved when relying on a power source that could melt down and cause massive damage and produces hazardous waste. Even the above solutions are short term, allowing only the containment and delaying of the problem. Nuclear energy has its advantages, like not producing damaging emissions such as coal, but it must be treated as a stop gap solution on the way to a safer and more sustainable source of energy.

What is it, after all, when there is a problem that does not have a solution as simple as a small daily change or a simple vote for a politician? Possible solutions to the nuclear waste problem are not easy, cheap or even convenient. In contrast the cost of not pursuing a sustainable and safe method of disposal would potentially exceed the cost of inaction. The potential destruction caused by neglecting this issue should raise concern in anybody who wishes to protect the country, either environmentally or economically. The concept of environmental causes being “liberal” could very well manage to devastate the economy of the country, while the typically “conservative” economic decision would help maintain the environment. Removing this issue from stereotypical party lines has to be the first step in order to avoid further neglecting the issue. The lack of a real plan for what to do with the ever-growing amount of nuclear waste is something that cannot be ignored, and should be dealt with immediately. Even though the cost and effort requires difficult sacrifices, the consequences of inaction will prove to be a far worse alternative.   

Works Cited

Yuccamountain.org. Eureka County Nevada. Accessed November 10 2017. http://www.yuccamountain.org/

 “What Does the U.S Do with Nuclear Waste”. Scientificamerican.com 10 November 2017. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/what-does-the-us-do-with-nuclear-waste/.

Sylvie Sherman. “Radioactive Waste Dangers”. Stanford.com. December 2015. http://large.stanford.edu/courses/2015/ph240/sherman2/.

Kyle Roerink. “People Who Live Closest to Yucca Mountain Weigh in on Whether to Build Nuclear Waste Dump”. Lasvegassun.com. September 2015. https://lasvegassu n.com/news/2015/sep/07/people-who-live-cloest-yucca-mountain-weigh-whethe/.

Ben Wolfgang. “Trump’s former Las Vegas cohorts gird for battle to stop his Yucca Mountain nuclear waste plan”. Washingtontimes.com. August 6 2017. https:// www.washingt ontimes.com/news/2017/aug/6/donald-trump-las-vegas-face-yucca-mountain-battle/.

William Shugart. “Why Doesn’t the US Recycle Nuclear Fuel”. Forbes.com. October 1 2014. https://www.forbes.com/sites/realspin/ 2014/10/01/why-doesnt-u-s-recycle-nuclear-fuel/.

Rinkesh. “Nuclear Waste Disposal”. Conserve-energy-future.com. https://www.conserve-energy-future.com/dangers-and-effects-of-nuclear-waste-disposal.php.

 “Nuclear Power, Selective Separation and Recycling”. Areava.com. http://www.new.areva. com/EN/operations-1370/nuclear-waste-recycling-and-treatment.html

David Schlissel, Beiwald. “Nuclear Power Plant Construction Costs.”Synapseenergy.com. July 2008. https://www.synapse-energy.com/sites/default/files/SynapsePaper.2008-07.0.Nucle ar-Plant-Construction-Costs.A0022_0.pdf

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Jessy Lee Stuebs is a professional musician and Colorado Springs local. In between practice, tinkering with various music equipment and recording, he reads about new technologies, laughs at conspiracy theories and talks history and politics with anybody who will listen.