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The Nuclear Crisis in Japan…and Yucca Mountain in Nevada
David Brin   Mar 28, 2011   Contrary Brin  

It is time to re-open the matter of Yucca Mountain and view it as an investment in our children’s future.

I consider myself to be one of the “techno-hippies,” like Stewart Brand, who have been pushing for the “new nuclear renaissance.” I am not unaware of the drawbacks! But we believe the newest fission power designs are light years ahead of the kind of boiling water reactors that broke down in northeasterm Japan following quake and tsunami damage.

With climate change, pollution, energy shortages, and dependence upon unsavory petro-princes all in mind, these new designs still seem worth careful prototyping. Indeed, more than ever, so that the crotchety designs of 50 years ago can be retired.

Statistcs are telling. The number of people who have died, per megawatt-hour of power produced by each type of energy system, are by far highest for coal and oil… and by far lowest for nuclear power. Lower even than solar. By an order of magnitude.

Nevertheless, the terrifying situation in Japan is rivetting and compels an open mind to new thoughts. Some lessons leap out at us.


First, the horrific behavior of the Tokyo Power company, both before and during the crisis, is an archetype of what can go wrong when a single, monolithic institution is in charge of critical infrastructure and also responsible for its own accountability. This crisis was avoidable, even in the face of nature’s unprecedented fury.

But the lies and shortcuts taken before the calamity pale next to those uttered during the aftermath. The lessons are clear:

We should never, ever allow a single agency or company the power to issue reassuring “truths” without competing sources of verification and scrutiny. A demure, respectful society like Japan appears to be particularly prone to this failure mode. In contrast, such independent sources exist along the west coast of the United States in about a dozen of the finest universities on the planet… and hence, the efforts by Fox News to drum up panic over a “Japanese radioactivity cloud” failed to gain credibility. (See this further example of top-notch “journalism.”)

Likewise, any new nuclear endeavors—indeed all risky-bold new endeavors of any kind—should be surveilled and monitored by multiple independent groups that include the most devoted enemies of the program! True, these are the most irksome people to have around when you are trying to get things done. But they are also the ones most likely to leap upon any potential failure mode and make absolutely sure that it is attended to. Critics are the only known antibodies against the self-deception of bright guys, who all too easily assume they have got everything sussed.

Here are the twin principles of error-avoiding transparency:

1) Paranoid critics should be given full access to all information and full voice to all of their concerns. They should then be part of the routine inspectorate that pokes at every complacency.

2) Once their concerns have been dealt with, those same critics must not be allowed to decide whether we move forward.

Reiterating that point: While improving transparency and caution, we must return to being a people that willingly takes on bold endeavors and difficult challenges. Here is the one area where the left can be just as jibbering loony as the right. A plague of timidity will not help us triumph over the problems that we face. However it is rationalized, by dunces at both ends of the spectrum, cynical anti-ambition propaganda is a poison that may kill all hope.

ymClearly, the disaster in Japan shows us that the used fuel rods that spend five years cooling down in pools next to today’s light-water nuclear reactors are more dangerous than most of us were led to believe. Hence, it is time to re-open the matter of Yucca Mountain. The U.S. needs a semi-permanent nuclear waste facility and the exuses given for delaying this are simply dumb. For people who don’t give a damn about the world a century from now to howl about some hypothetical leak that might occur in 10,000 years is utter hypocrisy.

How about betting on our children? I am 99% certain that the canisters stored in Yucca Mountain won’t have to last 10,000 years! They will be withdrawn in less than a century, like deposits in a bank! By descendants who are far more advanced than us and who see those rare elements as unmatched resources for fabulous projects! Why is no one able to even mention this most-likely outcome?

Promise the State of Nevada a 5% royalty on anything ever withdrawn from the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Resource Bank and Reserve. If they really can think in terms of deep time, they should leap at the investment.

David Brin Ph.D. is a scientist and best-selling author whose future-oriented novels include Earth, The Postman, and Hugo Award winners Startide Rising and The Uplift War. David's newest novel - Existence - is now available, published by Tor Books."


there are 35 fault lines under Yucca.

I’ve always loved your outside the box thinking - and I think you hit the nail on the point here.  We owe it future generations to think at least as big as those before us, not to mention, that we have the capacity for much bigger and better projects with today’s technology.

You talk about the problems with old technology like the reactors in Japan and the need for new and better designs.  But just a month before the disaster, Japanese regulators issued a 20 year license extension for the 40 year old plants.  AND in the U.S. the Nuclear Regulatory Commission also just issued such an extension for the Vermont Yankee plant—same design and same age. 
Yucca Mountain does not get rid of waste.  It would simply provide justification for making more.  It increases dangers by moving waste thousands of miles to another earthquake AND volcanic zone that cannot isolate the radioactivity.

Hi David,
Where do you get your statistics that solar power has more casualties than nuclear? I find that extremely hard to believe, especially if you take into account all the deaths from uranium mining, which is probably impossible to calculate due to lengthy and messy cancer rates and statistics.
Also i just met the director of a fantastic new Danish film “Into Eternity”
A Must See film about the world’s first permanent depository for nuclear waste being constructed in Finland. The absurdities of such a project make clear the industry doesn’t have a clue, are hardly thinking about future generations seriously, and are taking huge gambles with our future. I haven’t researched it far enough, but it also doesn’t seem that the cost of such waste management is being factored in.
The fact that solar and wind technology are not being furthered on a bigger scale shows exactly the problem your raise with Japan’s crisis. Consolidated corporate interests continue to steer us on the wrong course.
In researching the topic over the last weeks, I found some encouraging solar technologies that could be providing safe solutions:

Inspiring ! Though in my humble opinion, these might work even better as smaller decentralized systems whereby neighborhoods could organize them, not giant power companies.
What’s stopping the more logical solutions? The monolithic institutions, the corporate dinosaurs!

Good thinking.  In the article that is.  The 35 faults comment set me off though, the block of rock chosen for the now never to be built repository is bounded by two faults that are “capable” (meaning they moved in the Quaternary and likely would move again) but there are none inside the repository block.  The bounding faults act like shock absorbers for the block between.  The Ghost Dance fault in the block is not “capable” and is likely one of the radial faults produced by the collapse of the caldera to the north many millions of years ago. 

The Yucca Mountain license application took into account the occurrence of many earthquakes over the million year period, plus the occurrence of extremely unlikely but higher consequence volcanic intrusions, and the likely outcome was an increase of 1% in the local background dose for an unsuspecting person living 15 miles away with a well in the “plume.”  You can get a 50% increase in dose by moving from the Amargosa Valley to uphill from Carson City or Reno.

But, I don’t claim that US society ought to be compelled by the safety suggestion in the license application.  Science ought to be used to support decision-making, not to force it.  I am looking forward to the recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future.  Those recommendations will be out in draft in June of 2011, just s few months away, and will hopefully spark a national conversation.

In the meantime if the court cases challenging the obliteration of the Yucca Mountain effort force Yucca’s restart, that in turn may force Congress to act, something it seems to have trouble doing.  That could be good.

Geologic repositories are absurdities?  Excuse me but the Morsleben geologic repository in Germany was operated for 20 years, and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant repository in the US has now operated for 12 years and will operate for that many more, at least.  These are the responsible ways to deal with long-lived radioactive wastes.  Every nuclear nation is either working on or at least considering a repository, or hoping to share in a larger nation’s repository. 
    To set a good example for the world, when the US finally gets a spent-fuel/high-level waste repository, it ought to invite Mexico to dispose of wastes from its two reactors there (for a reasonable fee of course, but there is no sense forcing them to build a repository for two, or just a few if they build another one, nuclear plants. 
    Even longer lived (=forever) chemical wastes ought to be taken care of as carefully.  I am under the impression that Germany at present is one of the few places placing chemically hazardous waste into a geologic repository, Google - Herfa-Neurode - to read about it.

Why store nuclear waste to be reused someday in the future? Recycle it *now* instead!

I liked this part:

“Here are the twin principles of error-avoiding transparency:

1) Paranoid critics should be given full access to all information and full voice to all of their concerns. They should then be part of the routine inspectorate that pokes at every complacency.

2) Once their concerns have been dealt with, those same critics must not be allowed to decide whether we move forward.”

And believe it should be applied to every aspect of government.

As far as nuclear power, I’m convinced that fusion is just around the corner.

Lawrenceville Plasma Physics has been making much progress, especially in the last six months, and I think they are very close.

Of course, there are at least a dozen other fusion projects as well, so the more pathways we explore, the better, and sooner we’ll hit a breakthrough that leads to clean fusion.

DPF just happens to be one of my favorites.

This is the worse kind of future hype and hubris - saying that our descendants will be able to deal with all the nuclear waste we are creating.

@zizzy phus—I require more than an anti-Yucca Mountain website claiming there are “35 active fault lines in the area” before I will believe this is true. Where’s the proof? Where are the links to the earthquake maps?

I suggest you read Abe Van Luik’s post and get a grip.

Let Yucca Mountain’s license application proceed! Only the experts who review it are qualified to say whether or not the location is suitable.

Have you factored in cancer incidences and deaths?

I agree that we should proceed with new design nuclear power plants on two conditions.

1) That no government subsidies go into their building. After all, if they’re so wonderfully cost effective then government subsidies aren’t needed.

2) That the companies that build and run them be 100% responsible for their safety, which will include restoring the ability to sue the sh*t out of any company that doesn’t act responsibly.

3) That the companies that build and run them be 100% responsible for the safe storage or recycling of the nuclear waste generated, which will include restoring the ability to sue the sh*t out of any company that doesn’t act responsibly.

Somehow I think there won’t be any Nukes built under those conditions.

The Nuclear Wastes Safer Storage Solution has been solved, the idea uses old technoogies coupled with new technologies that answer all of the related probems, for a surface repository, that can be built in less time, and at a fraction of what Yucca Mountains cost.
All Secretary Chu has to do is look at it, take less than 3 minutes to see the idea works extremely well, for wet/dry safer storage as well long or short or long term storage.
This idea was sent to the US Department of Energy three years ago.
They have shown NO interest!!

Greg, have you sent your idea to the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future?  It is their job to sift through all the possibilities and recommend a national path forward and they receive suggestions on their web site.

The Yucca repository has to meet a 1,000,000 year standard without requiring continual monitoring and upkeep by future generations.  Other repositories in the US will have to meet a 10,000 year performance standard, also with no upkeep or monitoring needed from future generations. 

No surface storage scheme could possibly qualify as a permanent repository, but perhaps the BRC would want to consider your proposal—along with others no doubt—as a secure interim storage solution.

Why would you want to create toxic radiation and nuclear waste to be a problem for future generations?

You can’t guarantee the safety of those repositories - both natural disasters and human nature will ensure that eventually there is another catastrophe.

Let’s say you can recycle the nuclear waste - there is still alot of danger involved. Will you keep recycling indefinately?

This issue isn’t about being pro or against technology - it’s about what is good and what isn’t.

“Permanent repositories” increasing in prevalence around the world - why would you want that?

Why not look towards making nuclear obsolete and being more frugal with electricity?

Find something that doesn’t have such dangerous effects.

Being reckless isn’t avant garde.

Being more frugal with electricity is a great idea, especially in the US. 

However, cities and large industrial complexes will always require massive amounts of electricity and one of the greener and safer ways to generate it is using nuclear power generators, if you compare cradle to grave risks. 

Coal power plants spew out all the uranium and daughter products that was in the coal into the air and the fly ash produced.  Not dangerous, but care needs to be taken in terms of what fly ash is used for, if anything.  There is no risk-free way to generate electricity. 

Wind and solar are excellent, but expensive, sources of supplemental power.  Burning natural gas is simple but, what a waste of gas, and what a price when the price is high, which it is more often than not. 

A well-located repository is as safe as you can get, it is deep and hard/expensive to get back into.  Recycling is great but expensive and messy, but if nuclear if to be sustainable until fusion replaces fission, which may be another century or more, repositories will still be needed for the high level waste that is produced by reprocessing.

Once fusion becomes the electric generation mode of choice, there will no longer be any spent fuel or high-level waste.  Then shallower repositories or even surface facilities can be used to isolate activated metal components for a few hundred years, at which point they can be safely melted down and recycled.  That is where the world’s future lies I believe.  Check out “ITER” on the Internet, it is under construction and is expected to generate some electricity once it gets started up, a real breakthrough that will lead to designs of commercially viable fusion reactors.  I won’t live to see it, but if reincarnation is how it works i still have hopes of seeing it.

The entire nuclear world’s consensus is that deep geologic repositories are the safest way to rid us of higher level and longer lived nuclear wastes.  If the repository that is built anywhere in the world meets the IAEA’s advisory standards, it will be quite safe.  The very reason to go into stable geologies and to go deep is to avoid natural disasters, that—and avoiding inadvertent human entry—is the whole idea behind geologic repositories.

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