Nevada Says Yuck to Yucca

I’ve been spending a few days up in the Reno area, and since the President’s decision to go ahead with the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, it seems to have moved up in the local political agenda. Senator Reid is accusing Bush of “lying” and breaking his campaign promise, but of course, this is just demagoguery–Bush promised nothing except to make a decision based on “sound science.” Since most politicians wouldn’t know sound science if it came up and yelled in their ears, I’m not inclined to grant the Senator much credibility here–it’s really a judgment call. Mr. Bush may be mistaken, but he can’t be objectively accused of promise-breaking.

The Dems here are trying to leverage it as a campaign issue against Republicans, but the consensus seems to be that this won’t have much traction, because the local Republicans are opposed to the decision as well. It doesn’t seem to be a partisan issue here–it’s viewed more as Nevada against the rest of the country. It’s just the latest manifestation of the Sagebrush Rebellion, with which I am normally sympathetic.

Unfortunately, nuclear energy and nuclear waste are not issues amenable to decisions based on sound science–people tend to get too emotional about things that they don’t understand.

There aren’t any simple solutions to this policy problem. Nuclear energy is potentially the most environmentally benign source available in the near term (though the federal policy on it has been idiotic since the inception of the industry, making it much more hazardous and expensive than it need be, by mandating intrinsically bad plant designs).

But waste disposal is probably the most pressing problem, and it’s one that’s independent of plant design. And even if we were to renounce nuclear power today (with the attendant economic and environmental damage as we either destroy local economies from energy shortages, or increase production from much dirtier coal plants which produce the evil CO2, and actually put out more radiation than properly-operating nukes), we still have tens of thousands of tons of waste sitting in unsafe conditions at existing plants.

Every criticism of Yucca Mountain applies in spades to the available alternative–continuing to accumulate it at the plants in a wide range of conditions, few of them good. If Nevada wants to fight this decision, they’ll have to do more than simply naysay it and declare that, after over two decades and billions of dollars, it needs more study. They have to offer a viable alternative.

And any alternative should consider the following: one generation’s waste is another’s commodity. Before the invention of the internal combustion engine, gasoline was a waste byproduct of cracking oil for other purposes. Thus, one of the features of the Yucca Mountain solution is that the waste will be available to us in the future when we may find it useful, and any alternative should ideally have that feature as well.

But on the bright side, another feature (well, actually, it’s a bug) of the Yucca Mountain plan is that it will cost billions of dollars and take several years to implement. This effectively lowers the evaluation bar for competing concepts–they don’t have to be either cheap or fast, as long as they’re better.

Those of you who read my ravings regularly probably know where I’m going with this. Many eons ago, when I was an undergraduate, I took a course in aerospace systems design. The class project was to come up with a way to dispose of nuclear waste–in space. While it was (of course) a brilliant study, it has also been more recently analyzed by people who both knew what they were doing and got paid for it. It turns out to be (at least technically–politics are another matter) a non-ridiculous idea.

These are the basic options: dropping into ol’ Sol, which is really really expensive, and puts it totally out of the reach of our smarter descendents; lofting it out of Sol’s system completely, which is cheaper than putting it in the Sun, but still expensive, and practically if not theoretically out of reach of future recyclers; a long-term orbit, which is accessible, but long term can’t be guaranteed to be long-enough term; and finally, on some planetary surface, most likely the Moon because it’s the most convenient.

Lunar storage sounds like a winner to me. There’s no ecology to mess up there, the existing natural radiation environment will put that particular grade of nuclear waste to shame when it comes to particle dispensing, and we can retrieve it any time we want, while making it hard (at least right now) for terrorists to get their hands on it.

So, great storage location. Now, how do we get it there? Aye, there’s the rub.

The two problems, of course, are cost and safety. It turns out that both are tractable, as long as one doesn’t use Shuttle, or any existing launcher as a paradigm for the achievable. The key to both reducing cost and increasing reliability is high flight rate of reusable systems–what I call space transports.

Fortunately, like space tourism, hazardous waste disposal may be a large enough market to allow such a system to be developed. A thousand tons is a thousand flights of a vehicle with a one-ton payload. And there are many thousands of tons of nuclear waste in storage. And the tonnage will only increase if it’s further processed for safe handling and storage (such as vitrification, in which it is encased in glass).

Preliminary estimates indicate that it can in fact be done economically in the context of the current nuclear industry operating costs; the major issue is safety. This issue has been addressed as well, and it’s something that Nevada (a state that also offers high potential as a home for rocket racing and the space tourism industry) should take seriously as a possible alternative to terrestrial storage.

If anyone in Carson City is interested, I’m available for consulting…