Workers entering the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste storage facility in 2006.Photo Credit: Isaac Breekken, AP
With nowhere on land to turn, we should look under the seabed for places to bury high-level nuclear waste
For more than 30 years the nuclear industry in the U.S. and nuclear regulators have been going down the wrong path with waste storage—seeking a repository where waste could be buried deep in a mountain. Nevada’s Yucca Mountain was the place of choice until…it wasn’t.
Any time we choose to put highly dangerous waste in someone’s backyard, it’s bound to cause a lot of NIMBY opposition, even in a sparsely populated, pro-resource-extraction place like Nevada, and in the case of Yucca Mountain, powerful Nevada senator Harry Reid has hardened that opposition politically.
Aside from NIMBYism, the problem with burying nuclear waste in a maintain (like Yucca Mountain) or salt caverns (like New Mexico’s Carlsbad Caverns—an earlier option that was pursued for a while in the 1970s) is that the maximum safety is provided at day one, and the margin of safety drops continually from there. The safety of such storage sites could be compromised over time, due to seismic activity (Nevada ranks fourth among the most seismically active states), volcanism (the Yucca Mountain ridge is comprised mostly of volcanic tuff, emitted from past volcanic activity), erosion, migrating aquifers, and other natural geologic actions.
A better storage option
I believe a much better solution for long-term storage of high-level radioactive waste is to bury it deep under the seabed in a region free of seismic activity where sediment is being deposited and the seafloor getting thicker. In such a site, the level of protection would increase, rather than decrease, over time.