In 2015, I posted my review of Too Hot to Touch, a 2013 book by William and Rosemarie Alley. William worked for the U.S. Geological Survey, and he was involved in the search for somewhere to store more than 70,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel rods, and 20,000 canisters of military waste. The challenging objective was to store this extremely dangerous high level radioactive waste in a way that would be absolutely safe for a million years. The Yucca Mountain site in Nevada was an isolated desert location. It was not perfect, but no place was perfect. It was the best choice possible, based on 25 years of research costing $10 billion. The repository was designed to be 1,000 feet (304 m) below the surface.
The Alleys wrote that fuel rods are used for about six years. Spent fuel rods remain very hot and highly radioactive. For about five years, they must be kept submerged in ponds, where cooled water constantly circulates. Eventually, the hot rods cool off, and can be stored in airtight dry casks, which are much safer. Dry casks are made of steel and concrete. The concrete blocks radioactive emissions. Casks are designed to last maybe 50 years, not a million.
Permanent storage requires underground geologic repositories that will remain very dry forever, and not be disturbed by earthquakes or terrorists. In 2022, more than 89,000 tons of spent fuel rods are stored in casks in many states. If we ever build a repository, all those casks of extremely toxic waste will have to be hauled in from distant locations, with no surprises, if possible.
The Alleys wrote that in 2011, about 75 percent of spent fuel in the U.S. was stored in ponds. “Many of these pools are full, with some containing four times the amount of spent fuel that they were designed for.” If a booboo happens, and hot rods are exposed to air, the embedded uranium pellets can oxidize. If the rods ignite, massive amounts of highly radioactive emissions can be released. This could result in many cancer deaths, and cost billions of dollars. The meltdowns at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima were triggered by overheated fuel rods.
When the Alleys wrote in 2013, there were 440 nuke plants in 31 countries. At that time, no nation had a permanent high-level waste storage facility in operation. In 2022, there are 449 plants. Guess how many nations are using geologic repositories (zero). One in Finland might open in 2023.
A Wikipedia article on Nuclear Decommissioning described the aging reactors in the U.S. “As of 2017, most nuclear plants operating in the United States were designed for a life of about 30 to 40 years and are licensed to operate for 40 years by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. As of 2020, the average age of these reactors was about 39 years. Many plants are coming to the end of their licensing period and if their licenses are not renewed, they must go through a decontamination and decommissioning process.” Decommissioning is very expensive, and can take many years.
Barack Obama was elected president in 2008. At that time, Yucca Mountain was the widely supported location for our nuke waste repository. One crappy day, the Alleys were blindsided by an unpleasant surprise. In March 2009, Obama’s new Secretary of Energy, Steven Chu, told a Senate hearing that “Yucca Mountain was not an option.” In July 2009, the license application was withdrawn, and all funding for the project was cut. Game over.
Chu cited no issues, and offered no alternatives. The Alleys wrote, “Virtually all observers attributed the decision to pull the plug on Yucca Mountain as political payoff to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV). Nevada was a swing state in the election, and Obama had pledged to kill Yucca Mountain, if elected.” He needed Reid in order to push his health care plans through. Republican Senators blasted Chu with sharp questions about his hasty dumb decision.
In 2016, Donald Trump was elected president. Wikipedia described his Yucca Mountain policies. “On March 15, 2017, the Trump Administration announced it would request Congressional approval for $120 million to restart licensing activity at the Yucca Mountain Repository, with funding also to be used to create an interim storage program. The project would consolidate nuclear waste across the United States in Yucca Mountain, which had been stockpiled in local locations since 2010.”
Then, he changed his mind. “Although his administration had allocated money to the project, in October 2018, President Donald Trump stated he opposed the use of Yucca Mountain for dumping, saying he agreed with the people of Nevada.” “On May 20, 2020, Under Secretary of Energy Mark W. Menezes testified in front of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that Trump strongly opposes proceeding with Yucca Mountain Repository.”
In November 2020, voters chose Joe Biden to be the next president. Biden did not overturn Trump’s policy. The Wikipedia article continues. “In May 2021, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said that Yucca Mountain would not be part of the Biden administration’s plans for nuclear-waste disposal. She anticipated announcing the department's next steps in the coming months.”
A year later, in May 2022, an Associated Press story reported that Granholm had not changed her mind. “The Energy Department is working to develop a process to ask communities if they are interested in storing spent nuclear fuel on an interim basis, both to make nuclear power a more sustainable option and figure out what to do with the waste. Granholm said it’s the best way to finally solve the issue. A plan to build a national storage facility northwest of Las Vegas at Yucca Mountain has been mothballed because of staunch opposition from most Nevada residents and officials.” So, Obama, Trump, and Biden rubbished the Yucca solution, and offered no Plan B. Sorry kids!
Luckily, hope was on the way! In February 2019, tree-hugging progressives, led by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ed Markey, were galloping in to rescue us. The answer to our prayers was called the Green New Deal (GND). An early version of the plan rejected the notion that carbon-free nuclear energy was necessary to fight climate change and keep the perpetually growing economy on life support. It was simply too expensive, too risky, and there was nowhere to store the waste for all eternity. The best solution was “clean, green, renewable energy” — mostly solar and wind.
Not everyone agreed. Shutting down the nuclear industry would mean burning even more fossil energy to keep energy guzzling consumers in the express lane to oblivion. The downside of solar and wind is intermittency — when the winds calm, or sunbeams disappear, they quit working. Nukes can consistently produce lots of electricity, whilst emitting no carbon during operation.
These were the two possible options: renewables only, or renewables plus nukes. Not worthy of serious consideration was a third option: mindfully confronting our embarrassing addictions — sharply reigning in consumption, turning off the lights, unplugging the gizmos, learning how to walk, and seriously contemplating the dark vibes of our maximum impact lifestyles.
Anyway, the initial anti-nuke version of the GND generated resistance from the Sunrise Movement and other folks. They wanted to continue using carbon-free nuclear energy, rather than burning even more fossil fuel, and belching even more carbon into the atmosphere. On May 6, 2019, Ocasio-Cortez felt the heat, saw the light, and developed an “open mind” on nukes. She was willing to leave the door open on nuclear. She imagined that newer reactors were far better than the old technology. Ideally, the long term goal should be to meet 100% of U.S. electricity needs via “clean, renewable, and zero-emission energy.”
OK, so that’s what I’ve learned recently. It’s been a while since I posted new stuff here. Revising this book is hard on my tired brain. The above fits into a bigger picture that’s still under construction. The bigger picture has more components. We live in an era of conspiracy theories and fake news. The powers that be are working very hard to assure us that the climate crisis is an annoyance that can and will be solved. With the transition to clean, green, renewable energy, the consumer way of life can happily metastasize forever. We’re on the path to a brighter future. Don’t worry, go shopping.
I previously posted four sample sections on climate change:    . Those sections describe why I perceive that the climate is in a positive feedback loop. Atmospheric carbon continues accumulating, polar ice continues shrinking, Arctic temperatures continue rising, permafrost continues melting, and many other processes are intensifying in a downward spiral that is out of control. Even if all eight billion of us suddenly went Stone Age tomorrow, the avalanche of change we’ve unleashed would continue its descent.
An enormous shortcoming in the clean, green, renewable future dream is that it’s essentially electric powered. Fossil energy is not invited. Building millions of wind turbines, solar panels, storage batteries, and radically redesigning the global grid would be impossible without the use of technology that requires huge amounts of fossil energy. All of these gizmos have limited working lifespans. Periodic replacement is needed.
Electricity cannot generate the intense heat needed to make metals, silicon, concrete, and other compounds. Mining, smelting, transportation systems, and many other processes cannot be entirely performed using electricity. You can’t manufacture stuff like machinery for construction, agriculture, high technology, and so on. Thus, the GND is the opposite of carbon-free.
Lately — and very late in the game — some folks are beginning to push back on the Green New Deal’s magical thinking. Megan Seibert and William E. Rees discussed its serious shortcomings. Their report relied heavily on the pioneering research by Alice Friedemann. Geologist Walter Youngquist was my friend. The second edition of his outstanding GeoDestinies book is now available as a free 600-page PDF.
Someday my revisions will be complete, and this stuff will all be presented in a neat and tidy manner. Thank you for your patience! Have a nice day!