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Too Hot To Touch

Too Hot To Touch, by William M. Alley and Rosemarie AlleyToo Hot To Touch, by William M. Alley and Rosemarie Alley (Cambridge University Press, 2013, 370 pgs) is a very thorough overview of the nuclear waste issue. The book is level-headed, in-depth, and logical. It reads as much like a mystery novel as it does a discussion of the science of nuclear waste -- my favorite kind of book.

However -- spoiler alert! -- I was disappointed -- but not surprised -- to find that in the last half dozen (of twenty-two) chapters, the authors clearly advocate for Yucca Mountain. They don't come right out and say it, but all their arguments -- and they make a lot of good ones -- are in favor of Yucca Mountain as the nation's repository of last resort.

The main argument is that it probably would work. The downside? It's not a 100% certainty, and the stakes are very, very high.  However, they have an answer for that: Nothing's certain in this world.  Nothing's perfect. That's their answer! Trust the scientists. (Most of them, anyway.) Go ahead with it.

For example, they assume that Yucca Mountain will be safe from water seepage downward through the site because the vegetation on the mountaintop (what vegetation?) will suck up most of the 8 inches of rain that falls each year. There's scientific evidence that this is so. The scientists (and the authors) further assume that what's not taken up from the soil by that method will travel downward so slowly as to be inconsequential.

The water table is 1000 feet beneath Yucca Mountain. Some new volcano might spring up miles away that could disturb the water table, but probably not that much. Volcanos can erupt anywhere, but some places are less likely than others. Volcanic activity seems to have ceased in the Yucca Mountain area. As I said, everything works out in Yucca Mountain's favor in the book.

If the water table ever reaches the waste -- or if the waste leaches to the water table--- it would be disastrous, but the authors see both possibilities as remote.

The authors assume that Yucca Mountain will be safe from earthquakes as well. They admit to not discussing dozens of other "known unknowns" as well as a few "unknown unknowns." (Yes, they quote Donald Rumsfeld in the book.)

They don't state the obvious: They don't explicitly endorse Yucca Mountain. But they also don't state the even more obvious: That we must shut down the reactors and stop making more of this waste. Instead, they throw up their arms and declare Yucca Mountain the nation's best answer to the whole problem. The book IS meticulous. And they paint a bleak picture of why nothing else proposed so far is any better.

But the authors also thoroughly endorse the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico. However, WIPP is open only for military transuranic waste with relatively low levels of plutonium (or so the Navy tells us). It can't solve the nation's commercial reactor spent fuel problem. (Some problems with WIPP are discussed by Myla Reson, below.)

Why do the Alleys advocate (not so subtly) Yucca Mountain, even as they admit there are numerous issues which cannot be fully resolved?  Is it the port of last resort? The devil we know? Well, yes, it's both. They argue that Yucca Mountain is now the most scientifically studied piece of real estate on earth. Bar none.

But then they point out that several other countries have what appear to the authors to be successful geologic burial plans (few are implemented) for those countries' nuclear waste. All the plans are different: The earth is different, the containers are different, the depths are different, the quantities are different, the make-up of the waste is different, the rules are different.  Yet the authors of Too Hot To Touch endorse all these methods as equally successful: Proof that it can be done.  The hard part, according to them, is overcoming "NIMS" and "NIMBY" attitudes.

Everyone knows what "NIMBY" means: Not In My Back Yard.  Too Hot To Touch introduced me to a new term, "NIMS," which stands for: Not In My State. The problem, as they see it, is that too many people can say "no" to a nuclear waste dump in their yard, town, county, and state. Any of these groups can stop a project.  Every state's governor has, in some way or other, said "no" to nuclear waste in THEIR state. At some point, states got veto power over the final choice.

The authors of Too Hot To Touch expect the nation to find a small community that can be properly and openly bribed to accept nuclear waste. They expect -- following the recommendations of Obama's Blue Ribbon Commission on Nuclear Waste -- that somehow the laws will be changed so that surrounding communities will be unable to stop the small community's decision. This is called "community choice." I call it democracy turned on it's end. (Note: The authors don't use the term "bribed" of course. But what else are promises of tens of millions of dollars every year for as long as the waste is stored on your land, if not outright bribery?)

It's baffling that the authors do not endorse an end to nuclear power as plainly as they endorse Yucca Mountain. As long as we continue to produce more nuclear waste, of course Yucca Mountain looks good to them.

The authors of Too Hot To Touch can't see the end of nuclear power, but Japan has nearly seen an end to it, with only two of over 50 reactors now operating, over two years after Fukushima. And good riddance -- but three meltdowns too late. (Currently, the Japanese utilities are expected to ask permission to restart some of the others soon.)

Germany wants to beat the Chernobyl/Fukushima trend and is closing its nuclear reactors -- hopefully fast enough. The authors of Too Hot To Touch mention these facts, but completely discount shutdown as the only logical choice for America.

Several other countries also are planning to phase out nuclear power: Even a majority of France's population -- and their current leadership -- now want to phase out nuclear power -- but slowly, over several decades. Why wait? Why risk losing France, for a few decades' more "cheap" (not really) energy?

In America right now, nuclear power plants only close permanently from the force of direct economic pressure. New reactors have been prohibitively expensive for decades without government loans and/or loan guarantees (i.e., the taxpayer). Old reactors have been getting older, and are having major parts replaced (often at the ratepayers' expense, not the owners'). Replaced parts have included reactor pressure vessel heads, turbine blades and steam generators (steam generator replacement was a failed operation at Crystal River and at San Onofre, both of which closed permanently this year, and possibly at Davis Besse, too).

At the end of Too Hot To Touch, the authors ask the reader a series of questions. They want to know if you've got a better solution. Yes! I do! Shut down the reactors and stop making MORE waste, because if you think solving this problem "once" solves it forever, think again!

But they completely brushed "shut-down" aside. There was just one sentence, something about nuclear power plants not going away "any time soon."

Why not?

The nuclear industry in America is a mess! It needs to be shut down, but it will only be shut down by being forced to be -- and that's where the solution to the waste problem comes in.

All waste from all closed reactors that has cooled enough to be transported should be immediately moved to the nearest still-open reactor, regardless of if it crosses state lines to get there.  Forcing nuclear reactor sites which stay open to take in the waste from those that close will get a lot of them -- maybe ALL of them -- closed in a hurry!

Sure, somebody out there doesn't like that solution.  But think about it. The waste from San Onofre can go to Palo Verde in Arizona (part-owned by Southern California Edison so it's already their problem). If Diablo shuts down before Palo Verde, as it probably will, its waste can also go to Palo Verde, as well as the fuel stored at other already-closed reactor sites in California, such as Humbolt Bay and Rancho Seco. Palo Verde doesn't want to close: those three reactors all have new steam generators that were successfully installed a few years ago, and they are making billions of dollars a year for their owners (including SCE). Palo Verde fully expects to operate for decades. So give them California's spent fuel to store, since they have a fuel management problem anyway. It saves SCE and everyone else millions of dollars.

But of course, people living near Palo Verde won't like it, and of course, they shouldn't like it.

The point is, it's impossible to solve the nuclear waste problem properly until the reactors are closed. For 60+ years, all we've done is argue about it, with the environment the loser.

Unless we find a repository, once the reactors are closed, what we'll be left with will be "interim storage." No one has been able to decide where that should be.  But in the meantime -- as the authors of Too Hot To Touch explain -- we have de-facto permanent storage at every nuclear reactor site -- more than 75 locations around the country.

Some form of consolidation makes sense, but if we don't close the reactors, nothing makes sense.

Too Hot To Touch does not go into much technical detail about how radioactivity destroys its containment, nor about how it damages DNA. It's more about the fight between politics, science, stupidity and apathy (and bribery). But one of the problems with managing nuclear waste is the scope of the problem.

Too Hot To Touch, The Problem of High-Level Nuclear Waste, makes it clear that there are no good solutions to the problem of nuclear waste.

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