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Nuclear Waste, Public Safety

June 22, 2002

Marshall Drummond uses the recent "dirty" bomb threat to help make the case for moving ahead with the high-level waste repository at Yucca Mountain in his June 16 commentary. In doing so, he claims that "Yucca Mountain has been built using billions of taxpayer dollars. It has been tested and is ready to do its job."

Yucca Mountain has not yet been built and cannot be built until the Department of Energy submits a license application to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, perhaps in late 2004, which the NRC must then approve within three years. Not until then can the NRC grant an authorization to the DOE to build the repository. After it is built, the NRC must approve the as-built repository and issue an operating permit (2010 at the earliest). The DOE has been conducting tests at Yucca Mountain using "exploratory studies tunnels" and also uses computer models to predict how the repository will perform over thousands of years. However, many scientific and technical issues and uncertainties exist, according to the NRC licensing staff and reviews by federal oversight bodies. Yucca Mountain may prove to be an acceptable site for nuclear waste, but much work remains to assure it is safe for the public.

Mel Silberberg

Chief, Waste Management Research, Ret., USNRC

Thousand Oaks


Drummond's commentary is absent the solution to the growing nuclear waste problem here and abroad. The first step should be to stop producing nuclear waste at commercial power plants and at government defense installations. Our nation's nuclear power plants are brimming over with spent fuel that ultimately will have to be shipped to a permanent storage facility. Each 1,000-megawatt nuclear power plant produces the equivalent of 1,000 Hiroshima-size bombs of radioactivity annually. Multiply this by 105 or so operating commercial reactors in the U.S. and the problem takes on new meaning.

Our leaders have been telling us for years that 100% containment is achievable, but the disaster of leaking waste at the Defense Department's Richland, Wash., reactor complex--with more than a million gallons of radioactive waste seeping toward the Columbia River--gives little hope that a viable solution is at hand.

Enough other storage facilities around the country are suffering from their own containment problems, albeit on a less grand scale, that the old line "everything is under control" is becoming very shopworn. "Stop producing the waste and plug the leaks" is the best solution to a problem that is already out of control. As for Drummond, it is time to start drumming to a different beat that includes safe, decentralized power sources that are benign to the environment.

Alvin D. Hulse



Drummond wrote: "The half-life of some of this waste is 5,000 years--meaning it is dangerous for close to 10,000 years." Balderdash! Whatever this waste is--Drummond does not identify it--it would still be "dangerous" after 10,000 years, because 25% of the original waste would still be radioactive. Supporters of the Yucca Mountain project have been trying to convince us that radioactive waste can be safely stored in the mountain for 10,000 years and beyond. Is Drummond attempting to say that at the 10,000-year mark all dangerous radioactivity will simply vanish in Yucca Mountain?

Let me identify an actual waste product from nuclear power plants: plutonium-239. This isotope was employed in the Nagasaki bomb in 1945, is used in nuclear weapons and is routinely produced in every nuclear power plant in the world. If the Yucca Mountain project is approved, Pu-239 will be stored there. Its half-life is roughly 24,100 years. How many years of storage are required before the remaining Pu-239 comprises less than 1% of the original Pu-239? More than 160,000 years!

Leo W. Quirk

Dana Point

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