CHE 300

Environmental Science

Dr. J. A. Schneider
Dept. of Chemistry
SUNY Oswego
Oswego, NY 13126

Rm: 237 Snygg Hall
Tel: 315.312.2124
Environmental Investigations: The Nuclear Waste Dilemma by Jeffery A. Schneider, Ph.D.

Issues and Background

Over 83 percent of the people I represent vehemently oppose Yucca Mountain. Why are Nevadans so outraged? Because the state of Nevada produces not one kilowatt of energy through the use of nuclear power. And we create not one ounce of nuclear waste. Yet the federal government is asking the state of Nevada to store 77,000 tons of high level nuclear waste within an hour's drive of the homes of 1.4 million men, women, and children.
~ Congresswoman Shelley Berkeley (D-Nevada)

In expressing his approval of the Yucca Mountain site to Congress, President Bush said: "A deep geologic repository, such as Yucca Mountain, is important for our national security and our energy future. Nuclear energy is the second largest source of U.S. electricity generation and must remain a major component of our national energy policy in the years to come. The cost of nuclear power compares favorably with the costs of electricity generation by other sources, and nuclear power has none of the emissions associated with coal and gas power plants."
Nuclear Energy Institute

Nuclear energy is great. I love it. Unlike fossil fuels there are no harmful emissions of greenhouse gases, particulate matter, sulfur dioxides or mercury that emanate from a nuclear reactor. With all of these good things going for nuclear energy, how could anyone be against using it? Certainly when we started using nuclear energy 50 years ago, we thought more about the potential benefits and less about the potential environmental costs.

So what are the environmental costs associated with nuclear energy? While it's true that burning nuclear fuel does not directly produce carbon dioxide, there is carbon dioxide released during the mining process. In other words, we need to look at the entire nuclear fuel cycle (i.e. mining, processing, burning) when considering the environmental costs. Additionally, radioactive water is allowed by regulation to be released into the environment in the United States, presumably at safe levels. But these costs are for the most part hidden from the public's mind. The vast majority of the population doesn't generally think of these costs when thinking about nuclear power. What they do think about is the nuclear waste generated by nuclear power plants.

I live in a town that has four nuclear power plants and many of the people I come in contact with on a daily basis are in favor of these nuclear plants. The "nukes" supply energy and jobs and very importantly they supply tax dollars to the local education system. But these same people are against storing nuclear waste in our area. This is not an uncommon attitude and it doesn't only apply to nuclear waste. It's called NIMBY and it stands for "Not In My Backyard". Humans tend to fear things they don't understand. In the case of nuclear waste, we fear the effects of radiation and because nuclear waste cannot be deemed completely safe we say no.

On the other hand, some opponents of the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Repository in the state of Nevada say no because they produce no nuclear waste and would rather the site be in someone else's backyard. For years, the United States government has been proposing, designing and building a facility to store nuclear waste. Yucca Mountain is supposed to be the best place, but is it fair to store nuclear waste in a state that produces no nuclear waste from nuclear power? Yucca Mountain: the best site in a remote Nevada desert where all nuclear waste from all of our nuclear power plants and weapons facilities can be stored, sealed away forever 1000 feet underground. To accomplish this, 77,000 tons of nuclear waste will have to be transported across the entire United States for 25 years but during that 25 year time-span another 50,000 tons of waste will be produced by our existing nuclear facilities. Considering that the Yucca Mountain repository will hold at most about 90,000 tons of waste, is it worth it?

I started out by saying that I love nuclear energy; which is a little misleading. It would have been better for me to say that I love the idea of nuclear energy. Unfortunately, there is just too much waste for me to even consider a future with nuclear energy unless and until we have a safe method of waste disposal. In the meantime there are much better alternatives such as wind and solar energy.

Ask Yourself These Questions
  1. How close is the nearest nuclear reactor to where you live? Are there multiple reactors at the site? Do they store radioactive waste in pools of water or in above ground dry storage casks?
  2. How old is the nuclear reactor nearest to you; i.e. will it be generating waste for some time or will it be shutdown soon? How much waste does it generate on a daily basis? How does this amount compare to the amount of waste that you and/or your family generate every day?
  3. If the federal government told you that they planned to build a high-level nuclear waste repository ten miles from your home how would you feel about that? Would your reaction be any different if it was located 50 miles away? 100 miles? 1000 miles? Should your reaction be based on the distance the repository is from your home?
Different Perspectives in the Debate

  • Nuclear Energy Institute - Nuclear Waste Disposal
    A comprehensive site with many articles related to the disposal of nuclear waste. Resources include the "Yucca Mountain Resource Book".
  • Nuclear Power: Energy for Today and Tomorrow
    The purpose of this site is to educate the public as to the benefits of nuclear power.
  • Eureka County, Nevada - Nuclear Waste Page
    From the webpage: "As one of the designated Affected Units of Local Government, Eureka County maintains this web page to keep citizens informed about the decisions concerning the potential transportation and storage of nuclear waste that will affect their lives".
  • Clark County, Nevada's Nuclear Waste Home Page
    Clark County, Nevada is also affected by the choice of Yucca Mountain as a National Repository. This is their webpage.
  • State of Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects
    This website is maintained by the State of Nevada. It has links to the Yucca Mountain Environmental Impact Statement, maps of the Yucca Mountain facility as well as links to other facts and figures.
  • U.S. Department of Energy's Nuclear Waste Management pages
    A descriptive, although brief, explanation of how and why nuclear waste is stored.
    This site claims to be your one-stop shop for anything and everything to do with nuclear waste; though, some links may be broken due to heightened national security.
  • Nuclear Waste at National Geographic
    Here's a great excerpt of an article on the nuclear waste problem from my favorite magazine. National Geographic always does a great job and this is no exception.
  • Nuclear Waste Burners
    Although somewhat technical, this site offers many articles on the latest technology associated with burning nuclear waste.

All material (except for some code and external links) © Jeffery A. Schneider, 2003