(Phillip Moyer/Nevada News Bureau) – U.S. Senate candidate Sue Lowden last week attended a meeting of the U.S. Nuclear Energy Foundation, an independent foundation that promotes the expansion of nuclear energy, listening to what its members have to say about nuclear power as well as the plight of the Yucca Mountain storage facility and its potential impact on Nevada.
At the meeting, Lowden said she is committed to amending and rewording the Nuclear Waste Policy Act so that it requires Yucca Mountain be prepared not only for the long-term storage of the nuclear waste, but also for reprocessing the waste into usable fuel.
Nuclear waste is formed when plutonium fuel rods are contaminated with elements that prevent the power plants from creating a nuclear reaction. A number of processes exist for converting the contaminated rods back into usable fuel, but no facility yet exists in the United States to do such reprocessing.
Currently, 66,000 metric tons of U.S. nuclear waste are in need of a repository. According to Gary Duarte, the director of the U.S. Nuclear Energy Foundation, if this waste were sent to Nevada and reprocessed, it could provide Nevada with enough power to last 200 years.
Duarte said creating nuclear power plants would lower power costs in Nevada by at least 20 percent, something he said would be a huge deal for casino owners. If plants were built nationally, it could help stimulate the economy and help the United States compete with China economically, he said.
Duarte admitted that such a processing plant does have its costs, however.
“The problem that the government has about discussing it and the industry is that the first commercial-sized reprocessing reactor – it has to be a specially-designed reactor to do this — that first price tag could be around $30 to $40 billion. They’re all afraid to talk about it,” he said.
Dr. Dennis Moltz, a nuclear scientist who is also part of the U.S. Nuclear Energy Foundation, said the technology for reprocessing nuclear waste already exists and is used in France and Japan.
“The French and the Japanese do reprocess, and it came from technology primarily developed in Idaho National Laboratory,” he said. “We know how to do this.”
Moltz also said that even if a reprocessing plant is not developed, the Yucca repository is important to the Nevada economy.
“I don’t understand how someone could just willfully take out $500 million to $1 billion out of the economy of southern Nevada, and expect it to just flourish” he said. “Because that’s what Yucca Mountain was bringing in for many years: $500 million to $1 billion.“
Last month, GOP adviser Sig Rogich criticized Lowden’s stance on Yucca Mountain, saying that a single nuclear waste spill could destroy the Nevada economy. This echoes the stance of the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects, which cites concern for leaks of radioactive substances and accidents in transportation as two of its reasons for opposing the repository site.
At the meeting, the U.S. Nuclear Energy Foundation addressed the issue of the safety concerns surrounding transporting nuclear waste. Moltz spoke about a time he heard representative Shelley Berkley talk about how she didn’t want the waste transported through Nevada because it would double the radiation dose of her constituents.
“If that were true, the truck driver would be dead in ten minutes,” Moltz said. “The truth is that we know how to ship nuclear waste really safely. Not only by truck, but by rail. We’ve been doing it; we have trucks moving nuclear material all over the country all the time. And through Nevada.”
Duarte said that statements such as the one Moltz referenced “damage truth.” Duarte also said that even if there were an accident involving a nuclear waste transport, the casks designed for nuclear waste transport are designed to prevent radiation leakage in such a circumstance.
A 1978 test by Sandia National Laboratories found that nuclear waste shipping casks did not leak after being hit by a 120-ton diesel train traveling 80 mph or being exposed to one and a half hours of “intense fire.”
However, a 2003 test by the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects found that the casks would not hold up in extreme conditions such as those as those in the 2001 Howard Street Tunnel fire in Baltimore, Maryland. The accident involved a derailed train carrying hazardous chemicals that derailed, causing a fire that burned for three days at temperatures up to 1,800 degrees. These fires were fueled by the train’s shipment of flammable chemicals that leaked after the crash, though.
The foundation also addressed concerns with the safety of nuclear power in general, especially with regards to the 1986 Chernobyl disaster and the 1979 Three Mile Island meltdown.
While the 1986 meltdown of the USSR nuclear power plant in Chernobyl released enough radioactive material to cause serious health effects in the surrounding area, the containment building present in U.S. nuclear power plants such as the one at Three-Mile Island prevented such damage from happening.
“Every mistake that could have been made [at Three Mile Island] was made, except the engineers designed the containment building so well that no one got hurt,” said Motz.
“The old joke is that more people died at Chappaquiddick than Three Mile Island,” he said.
Moltz added that the plant at Three Mile Island is still operational, albeit with increased safety features that would prevent such an accident, which was caused by human error, from happening again.
The Past and The Future
Lowden said she thinks the initial reason for opposition towards the Yucca Mountain repository was because it was mandated by the federal government without input from Nevada citizens.
“There was a feeling that this was being shoved down Nevada’s throat by the federal government, and people don’t like it in Nevada when the federal government comes in and says ‘you will do this,’ without having any input from the people,” Lowden said. “And frankly, I didn’t like it when I was a state senator. I testified to them in Washington that I did not like the fact that Nevada was told ‘this is what we will do.’”
Lowden said, however, that she’s willing to learn more about nuclear energy, and its potential use for Nevada in the future.
“I’m serious about our country being energy-independent, and nuclear is part of that conversation,” she said. “And, if Nevada fits in in some way, we need to step up and do our part.”