Not Into Fracking? How About Some Nuclear Waste?

Photographer: Dan Lamont/Corbis

A tunnel almost half a mile inside Yucca Mountain, where the Department of Energy hopes to store the nation's high level nuclear waste. Close

A tunnel almost half a mile inside Yucca Mountain, where the Department of Energy hopes... Read More

Photographer: Dan Lamont/Corbis

A tunnel almost half a mile inside Yucca Mountain, where the Department of Energy hopes to store the nation's high level nuclear waste.

The U.S. shale oil-and-gas boom has something for everybody. Jobs! Community outrage! Cheap fuel! Financial intrigue! Geopolitical leverage! Dirty water!

Really, the only thing nobody's tried to work in is nuclear waste. Until now.

The very characteristics that make shale oil and gas difficult to extract -- they're sealed in hard-to-reach rock -- are the qualities that might protect radioactive waste from the ravages of time and the elements.

Irradiating hydrocarbon reservoirs wouldn’t be a popular idea. Fortunately, there’s plenty of hydrocarbon-poor shale around that drillers have no interest in. Chris Neuzil, a U.S. Geological Survey hydrologist, presents a study on such a site, near the Bruce Nuclear Complex in Ontario, at an American Chemical Society conference today in Dallas.

Default Storage

About 70,000 tons of commercial spent fuel currently reside in cooling ponds or dry casks at dozens of facilities across 30-plus states. Since 2010, when the Obama administration cut funding for a national repository at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain, limbo has been the only viable option. Developing Yucca Mountain so far has cost about $15 billion.

Other nations are moving forward, gradually. After decades of study, Finland and Sweden are furthest along in developing underground storage, in granite formations, according to Mick Apted, principal geologist at the Austin environmental management consultancy Intera, which contracted with the Department of Energy on its Yucca Mountain review.

The U.K., Canada and Japan are looking at possible shale sites. Countries are seeking underground storage because above-ground waste management isn’t a permanent solution. It’s too risky. "That's never figured in" when storage options are discussed, Neuzil says. "The risk of the current situation is usually not part of the calculus."

The 2012 Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future report advised the Secretary of Energy that “deep geological disposal is the most promising and accepted method currently available for safely isolating spent fuel and high-level radioactive wastes from the environment for very long periods of time.” The study mentions shale, basalt, granite and salt as options.

What to do about the spent nuclear fuel of the U.S. is a conversation with a half-life that seems as long as uranium's. The nuclear power industry, led by the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), wants the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to continue its review of the Energy Department's application to store waste at Yucca. The industry saw a minor victory in August, when a federal appellate court ruled that the NRC was obligated to resume its safety review of Yucca. With Washington legally committed to completing the Yucca legal process, set in motion more than three decades ago, and industry determined to see it through, there's not a lot of room for alternatives for nuclear waste storage.

That doesn't mean nobody's working on them. As Neuzil wrote in a journal article in July, abandoning Yucca Mountain "could also result in broadening geologic options for hosting America’s nuclear waste."

Keep Away From Water

Keeping groundwater away from radioactivity is a primary goal of any underground storage site. Yucca Mountain was chosen because it has some unusual properties. It’s made of volcanic rock, called tuff, that rises above the water table. Other options, including granite, salt and slate, usually sit below the water table, according to Apted.

Shale rock, fuel-rich or not, was originally clay, composed of fine-particles compacted over millions of years by geologic forces. It’s relatively impermeable to water, Neuzil says. Even if radioactivity should leak from its concrete and metal container several thousand years from now, without water around the radionuclides could diffuse only through the shale, a slow process. It could take a million years for radionuclides to move through thick shale. And in that time, it would decay to a small fraction of the original level, according to Apted.

Slower Than Molasses

The underground injection of wastewater from shale drilling has likely led to earthquakes. The water throws off the subterranean balance of pressures, creating opportunity for the rocks to slip. Underground storage wouldn’t be likely to do so. Neuzil puts the chances of shale nuclear storage causing small earthquakes at “almost zero.” Seismicity isn’t the only concern. What happens if underground heat makes a site unsafe? It’s a longstanding concern about shale that Neuzil says is better understood now.

“Does this mean there will be no surprises if site characterization and actual construction in shales proceed?” he wrote in February. “Not necessarily.” Surprises, he says, are “a natural outcome” given intense scrutiny, as at Yucca.

Few public policy debates -- even in the molasses-like energy and climate sector -- move quite as slowly as that over nuclear power. Within nuclear power, few conversations move quite as slowly as what to do about radioactive waste. The earliest scientific recommendations for geologic storage arose in the late 1950s. Congress designated Yucca Mountain as the official site in 1987.

It’s difficult enough for the nuclear power producers to site new reactors. The politics of choosing a permanent home for nuclear waste might be more complicated than the geology required to identify safe candidates. “The wild card in all this is it’s only partly a technical issue,” Neuzil observes.

If nothing else, maybe the viability of shale nuclear storage will change local debates over shale drilling. Don’t want fracking in your backyard? There’s always nuclear waste.

More by Eric Roston (@eroston on Twitter):

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