Yellow Dirt and About a Mountain

While studying mechanical engineer at the University of Colorado, we learned a lot about building stuff. How do you source the right materials to construct a bicycle? Where do the raw materials come from? What’s the supply chain for all the components? And what in the world are you going to do with it once it breaks and is no longer useful?

I don’t discount the fact I was attending Univeristy in the mythical municipality of Boulder, CO, which is often very, very removed from reality, but throughout the discussions on where we source components to build machines there was a strong emphasis on considering the ecological impact of every material and component making up the greater machine. We were occasionally required to perform lifecycle analysis to understand where we might source a material for products we build and consider what the consumer, purchaser, or end user will do with it at the end of its useful life. Will they recycle it? Will they repurpose it for something else? Or will it end up in a landfill?

This lifecycle analysis has a shorthand which encapsulates much of the idea: cradle-to-grave. Consider where you’re sourcing the material, how it’s going to be used throughout its working life, and then where you’re going to dispose of it. Some people prefer the phrasing cradle-to-cradle (instead of cradle-to-grave) to infer or motivate the potential of recycling, but in every manufacturing process there’s inevitably some waste generated, so I prefer the term cradle-to-grave.

This concept applies in every single energy generation process in existence. Hydrocarbons are sourced from the subsurface (cradle) and ultimately burned in a turbine and reside for millennia in the atmosphere (grave). Windmills start as large quantities of iron ore, fiberglass (read: oil), and copper (cradle), and they ultimately end up buried in large landfills in still barren parts of the western United States (crave). Solar panels start as a myriad of disconnected rocks and raw materials – mostly glass, but also some copper, gallium, tellurium, cadmium, and other metals (cradle) – and ultimately get shipped to electric waste graveyards in third world countries to be disassembled by children hoping to help their families (grave).

Nuclear power also has this reality. The other reality is the total amount of material required for an equivalent power output is minuscule compared to every other energy generation technology. This translates directly to an environmental impact orders of magnitude less than all other technologies.

But there’s still a cradle-to-grave process, especially for the fuel.

In conversations with two respected members of my network, each of them recommended a book to me. One covered the origin of uranium mining (cradle), and how when done incorrectly can result in environmental calamity and tremendous harm inflected on a community. The other was a meditation on the impact of consumerism and suicide in modern life with an anecdote of one of the most controversial nuclear waste projects in history interwoven throughout for dramatic effect. It seemed fitting to review both books in the same essay, give context to both, provide review to some of the biggest mistakes made in each process, and then make recommendations on real steps we can take to perform these industrial processes more responsibly in the future. Neither book is technical in the slightest, but they do both highlight key lessons about what we can do better in the future.

Nuclear Fuel Overview

Before diving into each book, a quick review of the existing nuclear fuel process will be helpful in order to give context about why we’re so interested in uranium.

The most common, well studied, and most utilized nuclear fuel is currently uranium. Uranium has two common isotopes: uranium-235 (U-235) which has 92 protons and 143 neutrons, and uranium-238 (U-238) which has 92 protons and 146 neutrons. Of the two isotopes, U-235 fissions more easily and can sustain a continuous critical nuclear reaction i.e. it functions much better in nuclear reactors. Uranium-238 can also act as a fuel in some nuclear reactors, but it requires more elegant technical solutions than most current reactors are designed for. The Canadians currently utilize U-238 as a fuel, but all power reactors in America and many parts of the world still use exclusively U-235. Thorium can also be used as nuclear fuel, but similar to U-238, it requires an additional process to make it as useful as U-235.

The relative abundance of U-235 to U-238 is extreme, and unfortunately exists in the wrong proportion for the nuclear power industry. In nature, U-235 is approximately 0.7% of the uranium found and most of the remaining balance is U-238. Because of this, if you want to utilize U-235 in a nuclear reactor, you have to “enrich” it, which means increase the percentage of U-235 in your fuel. Most of the fuels in the modern nuclear industry become enriched up to 5% U-235, which means of all the uranium atoms in a unit of fuel , 5% of them are U-235.

Why not enrich fuel up to 100% U-235? The best guess I have for this is proliferation concerns i.e. the more U-235 you have in one place, the easier it is to make a bomb out of the material. Because of this, the domestic and international industry has mostly stuck to 5% low enriched uranium (LEU) fuel. There is currently a movement to enrich nuclear fuel to higher percentages in order to make it more useful for smaller reactors, but still keep it below what would be useful for weapons grade material. This type of fuel has earned the branding of High Assay, Low Enriched Uranium (HALEU, pronounced “hay-loo”), which essentially means uranium fuel that’s 8% to 20% U-235 (and the difference is still U-238).

The federal government has earmarked $700 million to jumpstart development of the HALEU industry in the US. Much to the surprise of many, there’s no facility in the Western Hemisphere which currently is capable of this kind of enrichment process. The most developed supply chains exist in Russia and China, which is obviously problematic for the western world. Consider the benefit: the more U-235 you have in one place, the more fissionable material you have to generate energy with. You would be able to extend the design life of a single cartridge of fuel, which also reduces the number of times you’ll need to refuel a reactor.

Yellow Dirt

The first book we’ll review is Yellow Dirt: A Poisoned Land and the Betrayal of the Navajos by Judy Pasternak. Despite the prevalent themes of animism and naturism rampant throughout much of the writing and beliefs in the Navajo nation (my physics and engineering programmed brain struggles with these theologies), I really enjoyed the book. Pasternak is a reporter who interfaced with the Navajo nation over years and learned the story behind how the mining operations came into existence, how they developed over time, and the extremely negative ecological impact they had on the indigenous people of the Navajo Nation.

In the 1940s and throughout much of the Cold War, there was a fervent and manic effort to assimilate as much U-235 as possible. This was a critically important national security issue, as building an arsenal of nuclear weapons was the prevailing strategy to generate the strongest military conflict deterrent possible. A core resource essential to building nuclear bombs is, of course, the fissile material, U-235. This was discovered in abundance in the early 1940’s throughout the Navajo Nation in southeastern Utah, northeastern Arizona, and northwestern New Mexico.

I haven’t investigated with many of my geology or mining friends on why, but I suspect the climate of the region and chemical characteristics of naturally occurring uranium gave it an inherent advantage over mining the material in other parts of the world. It’s highly soluble, which means it can be dissolved easily in water and transported. It’s also incredibly dense – one of the densest, naturally occurring elements in existence – which means it settles to the bottom of mixtures as it precipitates out of solution. Consider the high, dry Colorado Plateau which has been drying out for millennia. It’s not difficult to imagine how water flows may have carried the material through the subsurface and into concentrated veins over time. As the climate around the Navajo Nation changed (long before they were there), the total amount of water flowing through the area gradually decreased, causing large quantities of the uranium to precipitate out of solution and become deposited and concentrated in mineral veins throughout the region.

Many people don’t realize how naturally abundant uranium is throughout the planet. It’s one of the most common elements found in nearly every soil or liquid sample throughout the world, but it’s found in relatively small or trace amounts. This reality makes carbon dating possible, and also means if processing techniques are improved, then mining of uranium doesn’t have to occur only in regions where uranium is more abundant naturally. It can occur literally anywhere.

These advanced techniques weren’t invented in the 1940’s, and so there was a need to source the material from areas where it could be found in its most common form, uranium dioxide (UO2), also called uraninite or pitchblende. In this natural state, the UO2 has a yellow hue to it, and the Navajo Nation was a perfect area for UO2 to accumulate – hence the title of the book, Yellow Dirt. It was selected as one of the first developments to mine uranium thanks to the natural resource abundance as well as the able and willing workforce.

Throughout the book, Pasternak weaves stories about the first companies coming to develop mining claims, injecting capital into the region, and hiring many of the natives to work in the mining facilities and camps. It wasn’t easy work, for many of the current mining technologies which afford the benefit of utilizing large, industrial machines to move incredible quantities of earth hadn’t been invented yet. Instead, they utilized mostly dynamite and hand tools (shovels and wheelbarrows) to perform much of the mining.

While installing labor camps in a remote part of the world may sound like a horrible deal to most modern millennials, the Navajo Nation was actually incredibly grateful for the projects. It brought economic prosperity to the region and acted as a root feedstock to fuel small communities, trading posts, and other economic activity. Additionally, the Navajos understood the underlying reason for the mining of uranium, and they viewed themselves as active citizens and members of the greater United States society. They felt a national and civic duty to contribute to the defense effort, and they were proud to be contributing to the war effort. This in particular surprised me as I read about it, but it makes sense. It was there land, too, and they wanted to help defend it and keep their families and nation safe.

So what’s the problem? Why were so many people upset about the exploitation of the Navajo people for the mining effort? Conflict erupts when you dig into the mining safety conditions, the increase in cancer incidence, and the government’s reportedly agnostic attitude towards worker safety.

Why is uranium mining dangerous? Uranium is naturally occurring, and it’s radioactive. That means when it fissions, it literally transforms into different elements and releases radiation. One of the resulting carcinogenic elements is radon, which remains radioactive and exists as a gas at standard temperature and atmospheric conditions. It can be inhaled or ingested and cause damage to the DNA in living organisms. This was one of the major problems with the mining effort. When they were loosing large slabs of bedrock, they might blow up an entire hillside with explosives, and the resulting dust from the excavation was inhaled by the workers on site. Respirators weren’t commonly issued. Additionally, if there were any mine shafts underground, none of them had ventilation to continuously push fresh air into the mine and remove the poisonous radon gas.

These issues can and are be mitigated in modern mining practices. It’s customary to have large ventilation systems installed for any subsurface mining and continuously push fresh air into the mine. Dust control is a point of critical focus, and sprayer systems as well as improved personal protective equipment can be utilized to protect modern miners from these workplace hazards. Geiger counters weren’t provided or utilized, and radiation limit standards weren’t understood or enforced. None of these things would happen now and are all easily remedied in future mines.

There was a lot of extra debris from the mine tailings and processing of the large amounts of material, and many of the Navajo people discovered that the mine tailings made for great construction material. Innovative, right? Utilize a waste stream to build building! Only one problem: once the buildings are built, they emit radon gas which poisons the inhabitants. Bizarrely, even after multiple attempts to displace or remove families from some of these houses, the Navajo’s opted to remain living in them.

The biggest black mark on the project was the government’s response to raised concerns about the safety issues. Multiple safety complaints were disregarded or blatantly ignored by high ranking government officials either presumably in an effort to keep the project operating or a general disregard for the wellbeing of the labor force. This is, of course, inexcusable and would never occur under modern safety or labor laws.

In summary, the historical recount of the Navajo’s struggle is a good lesson to have reasonable regulatory controls in place and appropriate safety standards to ensure workers are kept safe during industrial processes. We understand this thoroughly now (read through any OSHA or MSHA codes or standards and you’ll start to get the idea). It’s incredibly unlikely we’ll repeat the atrocities performed in Yellow Dirt.

About a Mountain

In the pseudo-dramatized depiction of a summer in Las Vegas, John D’Agata recounts his experience of moving his mother out to Las Vegas and the ensuing tragedies he experiences. Yucca Mountain was a popular topic during his tenure in Sin City, and he utilizes the controversy and his experiences working for a suicide hotline as a metaphor for the risk of catastrophe in modern society. The book is written with dramatic liberties (as explained by the author), and while it’s incredibly poetic, thought provoking, and generally well written, it jabs irrationally at and exaggerates the dangers associated with spent nuclear fuel disposal.

For those living under a rock (or a mountain), Yucca Mountain is the only government approved method of disposing of commercially generated spent nuclear fuel in the United States. The project has spent over $6 billion to build an extensive underground mine which will act as the final resting place for much of the spent nuclear fuel throughout the US. The project is not dangerous, albeit it is ridiculously expensive and, in my view, radically unnecessary. Many experts in the industry concur that the nuclear waste problem is not a technical one but rather a political one. We have all of the technical solutions necessary to safely dispose of the spent nuclear fuel in a myriad of ways, but there’s little political will or courage to actually do so.

I enjoyed the book, but the bias against utilizing Yucca Mountain as a permanent repository for spent nuclear fuel was rampant and one-sided. It highlighted some of the potential problems without putting them in perspective. I’ll highlight a few here in FAQ format by giving a quote or comment from the book and then responding in kind.

Harry Reid’s Statements

Harry Reid has several statements that are quoted throughout the book as truth or sources of truth. To a pragmatic person, many of these statements make zero sense. Here are a few:

“Ever since I was elected to Congress, I’ve been fighting nuclear. The science they’re doing there is incomplete, faulty, and totally unsafe. Yucca Mountain is the worst place in America to store nuclear waste, and that’s why I’m committed to making sure it never happens.”

Yucca Mountain is arguably not the worst place in America to store nuclear waste. The worst place is potentially the deep subsurface where it likely can’t be easily retrieved to use in future power plants. Other terrible places: the bottom of the ocean, inside an active volcano, and on an intercontinental ballistic missile.

“I will respond to my friends from California by saying that this month National Geographic has a wonderful article on nuclear waste. Among other things, it confirms what we have known for a very long time: that nuclear reactors in America are 97 percent inefficient, which means that when you put a fuel rod in a nuclear reactor and then you take it out, it still has 97 percent of its radioactivity. It’s only used 3 percent! Nuclear reactors are so inefficient that after they’ve been used they have to be put into cold water to cool down, and then they can’t be taken out of that water for at least five years. So I would say to my friend from California, it takes five years.”

This statement demonstrates political tactics, but from a technical perspective doesn’t make any sense. Nuclear reactors are incredibly efficient at generating steam relative to many forms of electricity generation. Most run a Rankine Cycle, which has a thermal efficiency of 42%. That means for every unit of thermal energy put into the system, you can expect to get about 0.4 units of electrical energy out.

Spent nuclear fuel is made up of about 3% transuranic fission products (uranium and plutonium which could be reprocessed and used again in a power plant), 1% other elements, and the remainder is generally U-238 (remember – the non-fissile isotope of Uranium). Most nuclear fuel is only enriched to 5% U-235, which means there’s really only 5% of the fuel available to “burn.” As such, nuclear power plants are actually 80% to 100% efficient if they utilize most of the U-235 which originally existed in the fuel.

Stating that something still has “97 percent of its radioactivity” is also confusing. A more accurate statement would be 97 percent of the mass hasn’t been fissioned. It does not mean that portion of the fuel is highly radioactive.

Policy Acts, Studies and Anecdotes

What is in the bill is a plan to dig ninety-seven miles of tunnels into Yucca, spend forty years filling them with 77,000 tons of spent nuclear waste, and then seal the mountain shut until the waste has decomposed. Just 90 miles north of downtown Las Vegas, and if approved, the radiological equivalent of 2 million individual nuclear detonations, about 7 trillion doses of lethal radiation, enough to kill every living resident of Las Vegas, Nevada, four and a half million times over.

Several significant issues with this statement:

  1. 77,000 tons is simply not that much material. It’s less than 25 commercial, on-shore windmills. It’s approximately how much sand we pump into 7 to 10 horizontal wells in order to frac the subsurface and liberate millions of barrels of oil. And yet it’s powered about 20% of the US’s electricity market for over 50 years. It’s truly remarkable how little waste actually exists.
  2. Listing radiological equivalents doesn’t make any sense from a practical standpoint. How could all of the radiological elements stored in the tunnels feasibly reach the biosphere? The scenarios dreamt up by some of the reports cited are on par with action scenes from every Die Hard movie aka seemingly impossible.
  3. Leveraging the numbers is neat, but he should have included a chart. It’s more effective for communicating size and scale to people. Charts like this one from Bill Gates’ book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster:

Of critical importance: none of those deaths have been caused by spent nuclear fuel. If that was represented on the chart, the value would be 0.0.

Several anecdotes were brought up throughout the book which were worth exploring or discussing more.

  • Page 34: American Nuclear Energy Council campaign to convince Americans nuclear energy was 110% safe – just as long as it went elsewhere.
    • Nothing is 100% safe, and therefore nothing can be 110% safe. We understand the rhetoric, but come on. Also, the DOE is currently discovering (through their requests for information on consent based siting) that communities which already have nuclear waste stored in them are more likely to accept nuclear waste. They realize it’s not a problem and not dangerous.
  • Page 35: D’Agata references the Nuclear Waste Policy Act and states it was approved by Congress after just 13 minutes of discussion and without a single bit of debate.
    • The Nuclear Waste Policy Act was introduced in the House of Representatives on June 4, 1981, and signed into law by Ronald Regan on January 7, 1983. Pretty sure that time span is more than 13 minutes, and I’m positive there was plenty of time for debate. D’Agata cites it being introduced to the Senate on November 22, 1982, which is over a year after it was introduced in the House. To say his rhetoric is misleading would be an understatement.
  • Page 37 & 38: The routes those shipments would have to take past ‘schools,’ ‘hospitals,’ and ‘nursing homes,’ and the routes those shipments would never be taking past ‘schools,’ ‘hospitals,’ and ‘nursing homes.’
    • Refineries exist next to homes. Coal plants exist next to hospitals. Chemical plants exist next to nursing homes. And prisons exist next to schools. These are all significantly more dangerous than transporting radioactive material. How can you be sure? We’re already transporting tons of radioactive material around the country (and the world) every single day.
  • Page 55: D’Agata references a DOE study claiming 63,000 gallons was poured over Yucca Mountain to see how long it would take to reach the center, and it reached it in less than 3 months.
    • This piqued my interest, so I looked for the original source of this reference. I couldn’t find it. This is all the information given about it: William L. Fox, “Mad Science: Bad Business Skewed Politics,” Las Vegas Life (April 2001). Based on the porosity estimates below, my overall understanding of the subsurface, and my experience of actually being underground in a coal mine and watching the tunnels we dug fill up with water, I don’t doubt that 1,500 barrels (the equivalent volume of 63,000 gallons) could travel from the surface to the depth of the repository (~1,000 ft) in three months. The real question becomes, how does that water then get back into the drinking water?
  • Page 55: “So porous it’s made of 9% water.” Testimony from Victor Gilinsky, former NRC Commissioner.
    • The exact porosity of Yucca Mountain is anything but certain. Core samples vary widely, and the NRC’s study on effective porosity ranges between 9% and 40%. That’s not the same as saying the mountain is made up of 9% water. It simply means that of the bulk volume, between 9% and 40% of it is empty space. This doesn’t mean the mountain is 9% water, nor is it an accurate estimate for how fast water flows through the subsurface.
  • Page 59: D’Agata refers to the Nuclear Energy Commission
    • There is no Nuclear Energy Commission. There was an Atomic Energy Commission, which in 1974 was split into the Department of Energy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
  • Page 70: Worst Case Credible Nuclear Transportation Accidents: Analysis for Urban and Rural Nevada (New York Radioactive Waste Management Associates, 2001).
    • D’Agata walks through this scenario and lists dozens of apocalyptic statistics about how many people could be hurt. It’s really ridiculous, and potentially warrants its own post entirely. Here’s a link to the report. In the executive summary, they identify a potential for between 6,000 and 41,000 additional latent cancer deaths over 50 years in a worst case scenario accident IF an area is not decontaminated (which, of course, we would clean up an accident if one occurred). To put that in perspective, outdoor air pollution from coal and other fossil fuels kills over three million people annually around the world. The Clean Air Task Force estimates the United States still has 3,000 deaths annually from air pollution caused by coal. That means, if we continue with business as usual, we have high certainty we’re going to continue killing people with outdoor air pollution from coal – potentially up to 150,000 people. If you factor in probabilities of an accident (highly unlikely) versus the likelihood of us continuing to burn coal (nearly absolutely certain), then the contrast grows even more.
    • Taking my own advice, here’s a bar chart demonstrating the contrast:

Alternate Plans, English, & References

  • Reprocessing
    • Originally the plan was to reprocess the waste, but the Regan administration killed that. I still think this is one of the silliest decisions made by the administration. The goal was to cease the development of plutonium (because it can be used for bombs), and if you reprocess spent nuclear fuel, then you can easily separate the plutonium out and put some aside for bombs. Call me a pacifist, optimist, or just delusional, but I have to believe that just because we have the ability to make gunpowder doesn’t mean we’ll use it to kill people. I think this is a huge opportunity to be reworked in the future, and I’m confident other countries will exploit this science over time.
  • Put into the ocean: late 1970’s, a Soviet nuke sub accidentally released three armed warheads while traveling near Alaska in the Bering Sea, nearly contaminating 187 square miles of international ocean. So a worldwide sea treaty outlawed that proposal.
    • I’ve long thought that dispersing radioactive waste into the Earth’s crust along a fault line would be a fool proof plan for disposing of nuclear waste. It’s essentially completely out of the biosphere, and within 1,000 years it will be 100% submerged underneath the adjacent tectonic plate. Some would argue that nothing in the ocean is out of the biosphere, and that there’s still a chance of fish eating it, swimming thousands of feet to surface, and then being caught and eaten by humans. This seems radically infeasible to me, especially given the relatively microscopic volume of waste in existence.
  • In 1980’s, a new plan developed to crash the waste into the sun.
    • I’ve also thought this plan would be an excellent option for humanity in 100 to 300 years (other than the fact that it’s similar to shooting gold into the sun). If rockets are dependable enough and the likelihood of failure drops low enough, then we should be able to launch anything into space.
  • Pg 112: The society [American Society for Testing and Materials] then tried lead, since lead is known for its exceedingly low levels of corrosion. But lead’s softness was ultimately found to be too easily vandalized. So stainless steel was then considered. But since stainless steel has only been in use since its invention in the late 1920s, its long-term durability is ultimately unknowable.
    • Materials science is a broad field, and after watching the innovations around piping and materials in the oil and gas industry, I have no doubt we’ll develop materials which can last millennia if needed.
  • When discussing how many people speak English, references a professor telling him only 5% of people in the world speak English now.
    • I had to check the math on this. True – if you count the populations of the United States, Canada, the UK, and Australia, then the total population of native English speakers is less than 5%. However, if you include the rest of Europe, New Zealand, parts of Southeast Asia, a reasonable estimate for the number of English speakers in China and Japan, and the elephant on the Asian continent, India, then the number easily rises to at least 17%. Regardless, 17% is still significantly lower than most Americans would likely estimate, so this fact was helpful in recognizing the fragility of language across the globe.
  • References
    • D’Agata provides 304 references or footnotes at the end of his essay to document the various sources of information. While he cites research papers, essays, phone interviews, visitor center visits, televised newscasts, and conferences, the vast majority of material was sourced from newspaper articles. While news articles can often be great sources of information and a place to find original sources, I’m generally always skeptical of the validity of their claims – especially when it comes to energy and politics. If the list had contained a longer list of scientific literature then it would have been easier for me to take much of the dialogue more seriously. Even so, the scientific articles I dug into (including the Worst Case Credible Nuclear Transportation Accidents) had their facts and figures significantly inflated or exaggerated without a discussion the probabilities of an occurrence.

Overall, D’Agata presents an apocalyptic view of the potential consequences of storing spent nuclear fuel at Yucca Mountain. Tragically, while imperfect, the reality couldn’t be further from the truth. Unfortunately, the money spent on generating a mined repository is generally wasted at this point as the work from the movement against nuclear energy has pushed the DOE towards Consent Based Siting.

From a technical perspective, there are few barriers to disposing of waste. Deep Isolations strategy is potentially one of the best as it utilizes proven technologies demonstrated thousands of times by the oil and gas industry to effectively trap spent nuclear fuel deep in the subsurface. If we really want to get serious about removing these easily contained fission products from the biosphere, then leveraging the technologies developed by the oil and gas industry is a very reasonable place to start.

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