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Trump Wants to Restart Yucca Mountain Process, No Word on Boreholes in Budget

Keeping with the spirit of only spending more money on things than can kill us, the Trump budget increases funding for the National Nuclear Security Administration, a semi-autonomous division of the Department of Energy charged with helping us use nuclear materials to keep America safe.

NNSA doesn’t appear to be directly involved in the Deep Borehole Field Test proposal, but NNSA’s online archives include this January 1996 paper on the idea of disposing of nuclear waste in deep boreholes. NNSA also contracts with Sandia National Laboratories, which has given presentations on the Deep Borehole Field Test.

The Trump budget doesn’t mention the boreholes (term must hit too close to home for the President), but it does specify $120 million for the Department of Energy to “restart licensing activities for the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository and initiate a robust interim storage program.” Nuclear energy writer Rod Adams says the Trump Energy budget is spoiling for a fight rather than promoting comprehensive nuclear policy:

This phrase [on restarting Yucca], describing a spending item that represents just 0.4% of a $28 Billion DOE budget, opens up a new chapter in an argument that is as certain to cause political controversy without hope of resolution as either abortion or immigration.

…There is little or no good news in the draft budget blueprint that provides support advancing nuclear energy development. The nuclear weapons management complex and the clean-up programs seem to fare well, but there is no follow-on for the expired SMR program, ARPA-E is eliminated instead of expanded to cover nuclear, the Title 17 Innovative Technology Loan Guarantee Program is eliminated, and there are reductions in basic nuclear research conducted under the auspices of the Office of Science [Rod Adams, “Trump Budget Blueprint for DOE Designed to Revive Yucca Conflict Instead of Advancing Nuclear,” Forbes, 2017.03.18].

I wonder if the Trump Administration has even noticed the $36 million DOE wants to spend on the Borehole project, or the deep distrust with which the project has been received in New Mexico and South Dakota. But hey, if the President can’t be bothered with the details of our main nuclear weapons treaty with Russia, we can’t expect him to understand the details of new nuclear waste disposal technologies.


  1. Robert McTaggart 2017-03-21 09:39

    NNSA is heavily involved in nuclear security and nonproliferation issues. So money spent on NNSA is well spent.

    Yucca can certainly be engineered, but there are likely better locations for permanent underground storage. Salts are better than volcanic tuff or shale, and Yucca has the volcanic tuff. Plus the community is not on-board with it.

    Probably the Trump Administration is not as interested in solving climate change, but the good news is that the Trump Administration cannot pass a budget through Congress by themselves. Many members of Congress understand the jobs that come along with such R&D with advanced reactors, and the importance of our participation in the global market for nuclear security and safety.

  2. mike from iowa 2017-03-21 09:53

    If memory serves, the community was ot on board back in 2000 when dumbass dubya promised the public Yucca Mountain would not be the depository and then immediately changed his mind after he was appointed bogus potus by the Scotus.

  3. Robert McTaggart 2017-03-21 10:10

    They will probably stand a better chance of developing an interim storage site in New Mexico or Texas than a permanent site at Yucca, simply based on current levels of public support.

  4. Robert McTaggart 2017-03-21 10:23


    It sounds like there are Republican circles that favor Yucca, simply because Harry Reid opposed it.

    I just think they would have a better argument for Yucca if they were to reprocess the spent fuel first. Then instead of worrying about groundwater issues for hundreds of thousands of years, you only have to isolate it for a couple hundred years.

  5. Robert McTaggart 2017-03-21 11:00

    Your alternative to the borehole is spending the money to build a specific reactor or accelerator or neutron source that will convert or break apart the isotopes in question (Cs-137 or Sr-90) into shorter-lived isotopes (hopefully far less than 30 years). That’s called transmutation.

    The bad news is that is going to be a lot more expensive to develop than simply burying it. And that is not in this budget.

  6. Donald Pay 2017-03-21 13:31

    I was going to send you the New Mexico article, but you beat me to it. It sounds as if the problems at each of these sites are similar. No one trusts the Department of Energy to limit their “test” to just a “test.” Everyone knows from past experiences that DOE has a habit of saying, “This is just a test,” and then sticking a dump there. And people have figured out, also, that the assurances of the consulting companies mean nothing.

    I spent last weekend reading and commenting on the DOE’s Draft Defense Repository Plan, which may or may not include a deep borehole component. Whether there should be a separate repository for defense wastes or not is a question that the Trump administration will probably revisit. It and the borehole project were wet dreams of Obama’s Secretary of Energy Moniz, and he did what he could to get them up and running. Thanks to Pierce County, ND and Spink County, SD Moniz couldn’t railroad the borehole project as fast he wanted. The new chief (Perry) may have different ideas.

  7. Robert McTaggart 2017-03-21 14:16

    It still is not the case that the technique would ever be used to store actual waste. We don’t know yet. A Yucca Mountain style of repository may be better.

    But I think opponents also don’t want to know if the technique could be safe, so they do not want to have any such positive data collected.

    It would be simpler for DOE to simply say that a location selected for the test site cannot be chosen by DOE for actual waste disposal unless a new approval is granted by the region where the test was done.

    However, wouldn’t that extra approval have to be done any way in order to eventually get a license from the NRC to receive waste at a given location?

  8. Robert McTaggart 2017-03-21 15:44

    Sounds like the contract in New Mexico could be different. Up here the landowner is requesting that no waste be brought into the county as part of the contract for the test drilling. Unclear if DOE will approve that.

  9. Donald Pay 2017-03-21 15:52

    It doesn’t matter what the contract says, because contracts can always be amended. That particular provision would not be enforceable, and probably not constitutional.

  10. Robert McTaggart 2017-03-21 15:55

    Perry aide Jeff Miller opens a lobby firm. He ran Perry’s 2016 presidential campaign.

    “Miller has registered to lobby for engineering and design company AECOM; Energy Transfer Partners LP, the firm behind the Dakota Access pipeline; electric car company Lucid Motors Inc.; and Southern Co., the electric utility giant.”

    “AECOM, one of Miller’s new clients, has a history of seeking nuclear-related contracts with DOE. Last year, for example, the agency chose AECOM and three other companies to begin exploring the possibility of conducting a deep borehole field test.”

  11. Robert McTaggart 2017-03-21 16:14

    The ability to amend the contract later would depend on the language, wouldn’t it?

    The other party would be able to sue if the contract was not followed, wouldn’t they?

  12. Robert McTaggart 2017-03-21 17:35

    Sounds like the proponents backed off attending this one borehole meeting in New Mexico. There was a hostile environment at the previous meeting.

    Regarding transportation issues, if you want to site the actual facility closer to where the waste is stored now, then you need to progressively drill in more complicated geologies than what is available here….this would just be the first step. In theory that would alleviate some concerns by opponents, because none of the four sites would then be selected in the future.

    What about the following tactic by opponents? Agree to the deep borehole field test in South Dakota, but work with DOE so that geothermal development occurs instead. Not likely that both nuclear waste disposal and geothermal would occur at the same sites.

  13. Donald Pay 2017-03-21 20:54

    Who is the other party? My understanding is that DOE signs contracts with the group chosen to lead the borehole test. That firm is responsible for getting the landowner on board through sweet talk, money and promises. At least that was how it was supposed to work. DOE has tried to stay the hell away from this second round, because they know their reputation is sh*t. I’m sure the landowner could insist on no waste on his land. That would be relatively easy, provided he didn’t already sign away his rights. The county could also legally prevent it through zoning ordinances, though Haakon County does not have a zoning ordinance. That’s why they decided to go to Haakon County: no pesky zoning laws to legally hang them up. This one landowner or this lead contractor can’t sign a contract that would preclude someone else in Haakon County signing up with DOE to dispose waste.

  14. leslie 2017-03-21 21:21

    doc-how expensive long-term, is “simply burying it”? by analogy how expensive was BP’s failure to adequately grout the gulf bore-hole, and to maintain a functional blow out preventer?

  15. Robert McTaggart 2017-03-22 08:56

    Hi Leslie,

    There are some apples and oranges here…oil is liquid and any nuclear material would not be, but I take your point that borehole safety is important. Both share hydrological issues, but storing nuclear material also must deal with heat and radioactivity effects.

    So this borehole would study the goal of meeting drilling specifications first without any additional heat or nuclear material.

    It will become ever more expensive to bury it because of our current nuclear waste policy, which assumes that the waste has no value whatsoever. Far from it. Simply “burying it” may be the real waste, and you have a larger volume to dispose of as a result.

    Ironically, more than 90% of the energy available in the original fuel remains in what we call waste. So does many radioisotopes for industrial tracers or isotopes for medical imaging/therapy. So does new rare earth elements and other critical elements that could help wind, solar, and energy storage without additional mining being necessary.

  16. Robert McTaggart 2017-03-22 09:08


    For years ratepayers paid into a fund for the disposal of nuclear waste, which in theory would have been Yucca Mountain. Ultimately the utilities sued and stopped that collection, and DOE has additional costs associated with liability for storing wastes on-site instead of the repository they promised.

    So if contracts were so willy-nilly as you make them out to be, why bother paying the costs associated with not meeting them?

  17. Robert McTaggart 2017-03-22 13:36

    The Democrats on the committee like nuclear because it produces no emissions, helps fight climate change, and boosts the economy.

    The Republicans on the committee like the reductions of regulations that come with this particular bill, the reliability of nuclear power, and the job creation that comes with it.

    So despite the hurdles to advanced nuclear in the Trump budget, Congress is offering bipartisan support for it.

  18. Robert McTaggart 2017-03-26 12:54

    Interesting series of essays regarding the fear of nuclear.

    “Living near a nuclear power station for a year is equivalent to living in Denver (altitude 5000 feet) for two days, or taking a single US coast-to-coast flight, since higher altitude results in less shielding from cosmic rays.”

    No cancers can be determined from Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, or Fukushima except those that got massive doses inside the nuclear facility itself, or thyroid cancers from short-term exposure (first month) that could have been avoided.

    LNT works well at high doses, but not at low doses. In Taiwan a structure used Cobalt-60 contaminated steel in the building. Over 20 years models predicted 302 cancers among the building’s inhabitants (natural plus radiation). There were

    The author (Roger Graves) states that the goal of permanent storage is to isolate radioisotopes until the radioactivity is small enough that it cannot produce any risk….forever is not required. He advocates a seal and forget approach, and that eliminating access of the wastes to both water and oxygen are critical to a facility’s success.

    He states that disposal sites are more likely to find success where they have the greatest economic impact, and where a completely honest and open description about the facility and what it does ultimately occurs.

    “One advantage of HLW [high level waste] is that it will gradually become less dangerous as time goes by, unlike, say, arsenic waste from mining which will remain toxic no matter how old it is. A properly designed nuclear disposal facility will be capable of isolating high-level waste until it is no longer a threat.”

  19. Robert McTaggart 2017-03-26 13:09

    “The truth about nuclear is quite simple. Only nuclear power can lift all humans out of poverty without cooking the planet, or keeping cities like Delhi and Beijing caked in deadly particulate matter.”

    ” “We have become a de facto nuclear waste dump. It just sits there, and sits there forever,” said Al Hill, the mayor in Zion, Illinois, where spent nuclear fuel remains stored on prime property along Lake Michigan even though the plant shut down 20 years ago.

    On top of that, the closing [of the nuclear plant] took away half of the city’s tax base and pushed property taxes to the highest in the state, making it difficult to lure new businesses, Hill said.”

  20. Robert McTaggart 2017-03-27 20:46

    Speaking of Yucca….

    Perry visits proposed Yucca nuclear waste site:

    “Gov. Sandoval and I had a frank and productive conversation, where he expressed his appreciation for my visit and reiterated his opposition to the proposed project,” said Perry, the former governor of Texas.

    “I thanked him for the long and storied history the state of Nevada has had in our nuclear and defense industries,” he said. “I stressed the need for Nevada to maintain its key role as we seek sensible, stable, and long term solutions to fulfilling our responsibility to safely manage spent nuclear fuel.”

  21. Robert McTaggart 2017-03-28 09:22

    Sounds like the opponent in that student election didn’t follow the rules, and he was disqualified as a result. The next one in line just happened to be gay. I don’t know why Perry would spend his time on that instead of other pressing issues in energy or nuclear nonproliferation.

    I don’t think Yucca has the best material (salt is better), but that doesn’t mean they can’t spend more money on the engineering to make up for that. Nevertheless a consolidated temporary storage facility may be a better near-term goal.

    The bigger problem is that he could show all of the technical and safety issues for Yucca could be addressed and resolved, and it still may not be enough to win over Nevada. I don’t know why they aren’t proposing a whole bunch of solar development in Nevada or tax incentives for those industries to set up in Nevada, etc. as part of the package.

  22. mike from iowa 2017-03-28 09:31

    You can bet whichever way the cat jumps on nukular fuel storage-the money trail will lead straight to Perry. That is/was/always will be Perry’s M O.

  23. Robert McTaggart 2017-03-28 11:12

    “Nuclear power opponents say waste at power plants is vulnerable to attacks and natural disasters, though many nuclear power backers say it can be held there safely for decades or more. Some lawmakers refuse to support legislation for innovation in nuclear power until waste solutions are found. ”

    Nuclear opponents appear to not only oppose the storage of waste at the power plants…they oppose the storage anywhere else. Furthermore, any improvements to nuclear that would address their concerns are not acceptable until the waste issue is solved.

    Ironically, the improvements in new nuclear would facilitate a lot more solar and wind without the emission of carbon from natural gas and address many concerns by opponents, particularly those related to waste.

  24. mike from iowa 2017-03-28 13:12

    Drumpf offered federal coal leases to coal companies who already are sitting on 17 years of coal at last year’s selling rate.

    Coal companies say this is mostly a symbolic gesture, but some might take the leases for fear of higher future royalty rates.

  25. Robert McTaggart 2017-03-28 13:55

    I don’t think they are going to have their salaries tied to the number of coal jobs they produce, because stuff like this has little bearing on the demand for coal.

    It’s like, great, this supplier has a lot more inflatable tube men to give to the car dealers. Does that mean there will be a rush for inflatable tube men? I sure hope not.

  26. Robert McTaggart 2017-03-28 15:04

    If he really wants Yucca to serve as a waste facility given said current demographics in Nevada, there will need to be some more negotiation from our favorite deal-maker.

  27. jerry 2017-03-28 15:13

    The Dakota Access Pipeline is fully charged with oil. How many jobs did NOem, Thune, Daugaard, Rounds and the rest of the lying liars promise South Dakota would have? Anyone remember?

  28. leslie 2017-03-29 17:07

    mfi: u r funy!! “dubya promised … and then immediately changed his mind after he was appointed bogus potus by the Scotus.” republicans elected Reagan, Bush Jr., and now trump. how low can we go? AR15 tot’en killer in the sky palin and potato-man were similar light weights. we now have a leader less intelligent than kim jung un.

    doc-pls leave humor to mfi. “inflatable tube men.” geez. and this is a red herring: “they oppose the storage anywhere else”. that’s like trump generalizing protestors are just “outside agitators”

    perhaps nuke industry should have come up with a solution before proliferation. then ” lawmakers [who] refuse to support legislation for innovation in nuclear power until waste solutions are found” won’t have such an intractable problem. we’d all love to harness nuke power so “new nuclear would facilitate a lot more solar and wind without the emission of carbon”… AND recycle leftover fuel w/i waste, of course.

    failure to plan….

    “could have been avoided” ”” “long and storied history Nevada has had in our nuclear and defense industries (meaning lets not add to the destruction/pollution Nevada Test Range has already suffered!!)” “advantage of HLW “–nice platitudes.

    “reductions of regulations … job creation”. Congress is hardly offering bipartisan support

    ps-what is LNT? toe jam?

  29. Robert McTaggart 2017-03-29 18:37

    Sorry Leslie, I’ll be more specific. It’s not necessarily the case that the same person opposes everything regarding nuclear, but different groups of opponents have generated a stalemate. For instance, one group wants waste removed from their shut-down nuclear plant, another wants to keep it away.

    LNT is the Linear No-Threshold hypothesis of the biological response to radiation. This doesn’t mean if you get a dose you will automatically get cancer. It means that on average among a large population of similar individuals, a certain percentage is PREDICTED to get cancer.

    The model influences public perception. There is a difference between any radioactivity generating a risk, and no radioactivity generating a risk until a certain threshold is met. And then nuclear is not an option to be paired up with renewables.

  30. Robert McTaggart 2017-03-30 14:47

    Borehole news from New Mexico

    Vocal opponents think nuclear waste is coming….however…

    “….if you Google the diameter of a nuclear fuel rod, considered high level waste, it ranges from 31 feet to 41 feet in diameter.

    “I’m not a nuclear scientist or an engineer, but there may be an issue with trying to put a 31-foot-wide rod into a 17-inch-wide borehole,” he said. ”

    “….another issue that has been widely used in opposition to the project is saying the drilling will go through the Ogallala aquifer beneath their land, but the aquifer is not located beneath their land or the potential site.”

  31. grudznick 2017-03-30 21:03

    The biggest risk, if and only if they intended The Borehole to dispose of nuclear waste, and we all know it is a fact they are not so anybody who purports that is blatantly and intentionally distorting the truth, the biggest risk would be if they ground up these fat fuel rods using a grinder machine like at the gravel pit and all the nuclear dust and things then blew around town. They would have to grind up the rods to fit them into The Borehole, but The Borehole will be capped with impregnable concrete.

  32. Robert McTaggart 2017-03-31 09:06

    Rest easy grudznick, they would not do any of the machining or engineering of the nuclear fuel at any future permanent disposal site. That would be done somewhere else.

    Plus generation of radioactive dust would be frowned upon. That would get everywhere and could be breathed in. As Low As Reasonably Achievable means you get the job done while minimizing dose whenever possible.

    The compartment up above sounds big…it may contain everything…pipes, pumps, shielding, etc….not just the core with the fuel rods. So there may be some confusion about the dimensions. I’ll look it up later for a commercial reactor.

  33. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2017-03-31 22:10

    Ah, so when I heard “rod”, I thought that meant just one of those components in the assembly. I take it no one wants to try to take apart a fuel assembly and dispose of those individual fuel rods separately?

  34. Robert McTaggart 2017-04-01 14:46

    I don’t believe that it is a good idea to isolate today’s spent fuel in its current form with a borehole technique. In a nutshell there are many other things in commercial wastes besides the Cs-137 and Sr-90 you see in defense wastes.

    While it would be simpler to put the whole assembly in together (like what they already do for dry cask storage), it will be a lot more expensive to drill that wide of a hole that deep.

    I can’t say that it would be impossible to isolate individual fuel rods or the pellets/cladding themselves…just that it would be expensive due to all of the engineering that has not been done yet. There would be potential pathways for radioisotopes to escape if the pellets crack or corrosion chemistry takes place.

    Note that in Fukushima, heat plus nuclear fuel plus metal cladding led to chemical reactions that generated hydrogen gas. So if you put the wrong materials underground, there would be no convection in the borehole for air to remove the heat…you have to be fine with heat removal by conduction only.

    Occam’s Razor says choose an easier path and use a Yucca Mountain style of storage or dry cask storage for commercial wastes instead. Those have the benefit of reducing heat load by increasing the distance between waste containers and allowing convection to take place.

    I wouldn’t consider borehole methods for any commercial storage until after reprocessing is done and a suitable final waste form is engineered. What is left would generate a much smaller heat load.

  35. mike from iowa 2017-04-01 15:26

    Trust Drumpf and his experts to just “wing it”. What could possibly go wrong? Of course you know they would demand release from all liabilities in case any minor disaster threatened the planet.

  36. mike from iowa 2017-04-01 15:28

    Maybe talk Drumpf into incorporating spent fuel rods on his golf courses. Might be interesting to see what kinds of mutated hazards manifest themselves over the centuries.

  37. Robert McTaggart 2017-04-19 11:03

    “A giant aquifer below an eastern Idaho federal nuclear facility is as free of radioactive contamination and other pollutants as it has been in more than six decades of monitoring but the water level of the aquifer is at its lowest ever recorded, according to a U.S. Geological Survey report released this week.

    Better environmental practices and cleanup work at the 890-square-mile (2,305-square-kilometer) U.S. Department of Energy site that includes the Idaho National Laboratory is paying off, said United States Geological Survey scientist Roy Bartholomay.”

    “Officials say contamination from the federal site reached the aquifer through injection wells, unlined pits and accidental spills, mainly during the Cold War era before regulations to protect the environment were put in place.

    In 1972, about 19,000 gallons (71,920 liters) of highly radioactive sodium bearing waste that involved the tritium, strontium-90, cesium-137 and plutonium-238 spilled during a failed underground transfer at the Idaho Nuclear Technology and Engineering Center’s tank farm.

    The U.S. Department of Energy has spent millions of dollars cleaning up various areas of the facility that is listed as a superfund site. That includes digging up buried waste and sending it to a New Mexico facility.”

    Good news and bad news. The good news is that the clean-up looks to be successful, and the current environmental regulations are working (gee…some regulations are worthwhile). The bad news is that this is why the wastes needed a better disposal solution than at the surface or near the surface.

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