Bill Heerman, Southern Company
It was 6:20 when I walked out into another brilliant Nevada morning. I was headed for Yucca Mountain, a remote patch of desert behind the military gates of the Nevada Test Site and the proposed site for power plants to store used, but still radioactive, nuclear fuel. (Southern Company operates three nuclear plants and each pays into the Nuclear Waste Fund to ready Yucca Mountain for storage, as do other companies in the industry.)
Bill Heerman, Southern Company Click here to enlarge image
I set off for the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management-a sobering destination at any hour. I navigated down six lanes of traffic in an SUV, through what arguably is the strangest stretch of architecture on the face of the earth: the Vegas strip. Almost all of Nevada’s man-made landmarks are concentrated into a 5-mile “gawkway.”
When I located the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, I found a little office tucked between a community college and a local YMCA. It looked like the kind of place that once sold auto parts. Now it houses a small museum to explain the Yucca site and its history. Accompanying documentation could fill a library.
The effort started in 1982 with the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. By 1987, Congress revised the act to specifically investigate the merits of Yucca Mountain.
In 1994, the DOE began excavation of the 5-mile-long, U-shaped main tunnel, finishing it 31 months and $123 million later. Two portals penetrate into the earth at about a 2.5 percent grade connected by a tunnel about 1,000 feet under Yucca Mountain.
My guides-a DOE Office of Project Execution rep and a public affairs contractor- explained a lot of the engineering ideas that went into the selection and testing of the site.
Is it a mine or a yours?
In cowboy country, if there is an old mine, there’s always a lost Dutchman-some guy who disappeared into the desert with a wash pan forever immortalized as having found the mother lode but also the misfortune to evaporate on the way back.
Yucca Mountain has no lost Dutchman. In fact, Yucca Mountain is the only mine made to deposit minerals rather than extract them. The minerals in this case are uranium isotopes encased in concrete and nickel-alloy jackets: spent fuel rods from nuclear power plants throughout the United States.
The site was selected for its dearth of gems and utter poverty of precious minerals. The mountain is entirely made of worthless volcanic tuff, 6,000 feet thick, deposited from volcanoes 11 million years ago.
Somewhere between the outposts of Indian Springs and Armagasa Valley, we turned off the highway onto the Nevada Test Site where we stopped at a military guard station. Yucca Mountain lies within three jurisdictions-the Nevada Test Site, Nellis Air Force Range and the Bureau of Land Management. An armed guard in full combat uniform checked our credentials.
The site is near the infamous Area 51, the secret government aircraft testing area suspected by many as harboring alien spacecraft. It is also home to more than 900 nuclear tests since the 1950s, 100 of which were atmospheric.
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The trek across back roads continued and delivered me to the middle of nowhere, 100 miles from my valet parking spot in Vegas. Here it was. Yucca Mountain.
Under the weather
The North Portal area, where most of the outbuildings were constructed, looks like a trailer park with scientists for tenants. There are formal rules for moving within this compound-paths to take, safety equipment to wear and credentials to carry.
We were issued hard hats, safety glasses and earplugs. We also received a belt with a flashlight and a device worn over the mouth that catalyzed carbon monoxide into harmless carbon dioxide in case of a fire. The drawback to this device was its by-product: heat. We were forewarned that activating the device would probably blister our lips but, in case of fire, it would save our lives. Remove it for only an instant to cool your lips and you risk death.
We were also told that if any of us stumbled and fell, we would be, without exception, removed and taken to a physician for an examination. Finally, we had to don a radon detector, which looked like a polka-dotted snuff can on a necklace.
Another guide joined us. He was the escort for the journey to the center of the earth. If you expected timber beams, iron carts on rickety tracks and burros, forget it. Yucca Mountain is recently excavated and cleaner than a hospital ward.
We walked into the North Portal, a 25-foot circular cut into solid rock that stretched as far as the eye could see.
Narrow-rail train tracks run the length of the tunnel. Some sections have a catwalk with a handrail. We walked a short distance into the tunnel and turned into the first drift, a dead-end tunnel off the main branch.
The tunnels are uniform in color-gray with a faint tinge of pink. There are spray-painted circles and streaks marking various tests. In some cases, core samples are taken from deep inside the rock walls to analyze faults.
Ventilation conduit and thick wires run everywhere, in great bundles, to power the research tools, heaters and lights.
After an orientation to the tunnels and tests, we boarded the train. Here it was clear why ear protection was important: This was a combustion engine-driven train and the walls reverberated the sound of the engine. It was cool here, too, under the weather. But not damp like you’d expect in a cave.
Getting water from a rock
None of the actual storage drifts are yet drilled in the rock, only the main-access tunnel. However, we ventured deep into the mountain to one of the several test drifts hollowed out to simulate and study different underground conditions.
As time passes, radioactive elements become harmless. The goal of this facility is 10,000 years of stable storage by which time the fuel will be much less hazardous.
Primarily, the engineering crews are interested in heat and fluid movement through the rocks. They also model the potential for earthquakes and volcanoes.
But the principle concern for any nuclear storage site is leaks. To breach containment, groundwater must somehow enter a repository, dissolve some of the waste and carry it to the surface.
We entered a test area covered entirely in reflective insulating material. Here, researchers heat a sealed 150-foot drift to 394 degrees Fahrenheit to simulate the effects of hot fuel on the rocks. (It takes more than 20 major electric junction boxes outside the test area to power the heaters.)
Workers are comparing moisture levels of the surrounding rock over time. They tell me all rocks naturally contain 8 percent to 12 percent water. These tests drive out all of the water.
While I wondered how many pizzas could be baked here at once, they were analyzing whether high temperatures change the strength of the walls, the way water will filter through the rocks and how radiated particles might travel with it.
Rock and roll
We exited the tunnels, turned in our belts and radon detectors, then drove to the South Portal where the $12 million tunnel-boring machine rested at the end of the rail tracks like a beached white whale.
The machine and its 13 trailing decks, or work platforms, are longer than a typical train. It weighs 860 tons. When on the job, it inches forward, wedging itself against the sides of the tunnel as various cutters in the 25-foot-diameter head grind and chip the rock.
The design resembles a giant electric shaver with 48 rotary heads about as big as trashcan lids.
The chips, known as muck, move out through the back of the machine on a series of conveyor belts. Standing beside it in the clear and quiet desert air, I could only imagine the noise and tumult the machine made in gouging out 240 feet per month for four years.
In the bag?
After $4 billion and 20 years of planning, study and comment, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham earlier this month chose Yucca Mountain to be the nation’s nuclear waste burial site. The Department of Energy plans to submit the license application for the site this year.
Yucca Mountain is the most studied rock on the planet, according to my guides. A better-suited, more remote place on dry land to store spent nuclear fuel is hard to fathom.
But, its fate is not in the bag. Hurdles from the state of Nevada, concerned citizens, government officials and even some anti-nuclear groups, persist.
If all goes as planned, by 2010 plants could start sending used fuel to the facility, removing it from sites far less studied and more risky throughout the United States.
With 42,000 metric tons of used fuel awaiting permanent storage, it will take more than 30 years to move all of it into the drifts and about that much time to concurrently bore them. Twice that amount of used fuel could exist in the next 30 years. This facility would accommodate all of it.
On the horizon
Emerging from inside the mountain and back into the SUV, we drove up Yucca Mountain. Stepping out into the crisp air, there were miles of Nevada at our feet. On the horizon we could see Mount Whitney, a speck of white in the Sierra Nevada Mountains more than 100 miles away.
I walked across the spine of Yucca Mountain. Apart from the scant vegetation, the scenery was lunar. Not a soul in site. It seemed separated by eons from the Black Jack tables down the road.
All photos of the Yucca Mountain site (including the cover photo) courtesy of Heerman and Southern Company.
Heerman is an account executive and web content strategist for the corporate communications department of Southern Company. Through his work for one of the nation’s largest generators of electricity, he has gained a more in-depth understanding of the business behind the plug and the issues facing a world with a growing appetite for power. One such issue, balancing the daily demand for electricity with its environmental impact, led Heerman to tour Yucca Mountain. In addition, Heerman visits and photographs scenic areas and plans to author a book about natural and historic areas.
Heerman is a graduate of Valparaiso University and holds a Masters of the Arts in Journalism and Communications from the University of Florida, Gainesville. Bill can be reached via email at email@example.com.