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Minnesota granite could be a replacement for Yucca Mountain repository

Granite is a tough, impermeable combination of silicon and feldspar.

The fact that the Obama administration has abandoned the national project to store nuclear waste in a facility at Yucca Mountain in Nevada presents Minnesota with a large business opportunity in its granite deposits.

Minnesota is situated on the southern edge of the Canadian Shield, where basement rock is close to the surface. Shields  have relatively few layers of sedimentary rocks like shale from which came most of the earth’s oil and gas deposits. To our west, the basement rock dips down to form the Williston Basin, which includes the western Dakotas, eastern Montana, and Saskatchewan. Basins have room for deep sedimentary layers that can contain reservoirs of fossil fuels.

As if to compensate for our lack of oil riches, nature provided Minnesota with substantial and useful mineral deposits, especially the world-class iron ore reservoir on the Iron Range. Most of that ore is gone, having supplied the steel that framed many of America’s buildings and machines.

But in a band meandering from southwest to northeast, adjacent to the ancient Archean granite of Minnesota’s Iron Range, lie large deposits of the precious platinum group metals (PGMs) together with nickel, copper, gold and silver. Many of these minerals contain sulfur compounds, and their exploitation is awaiting more analysis of potential mining hazard to adjacent ground waters.

Potential multibillion-dollar industry

Minnesota is well endowed with another mineral, not precious, but widely used for buildings, bridges, paving and countertops: granite, a tough, impermeable combination of silicon and feldspar. There is another potential use for granite: encapsulating nuclear waste. Thanks to some rigid and in my opinion technically ignorant Nevada politicians, and our nation’s annual need to store thousands of tons of spent nuclear fuel, our granite could become a multibillion-dollar industry in northern Minnesota.

One tenth of a cent per kilowatt hour (kwh) generated by our 100 nuclear power reactors is placed in a fund to provide geologic storage of the fuel waste generated by those reactors. This waste material is currently stored in water pools and in steel and concrete casks at our reactor sites, awaiting transfer to geologic storage.

The storage fund now exceeds $25 billion, half of it already spent to build the long-planned storage facility in Nevada’s Yucca Mountain Ridge. Pressure from Nevada officials caused President Obama to cancel the project and begin its dismantling.

Sandia National Laboratories was commissioned to study America’s geology for an alternative site. Sandia’s report notes that granite's properties as a chemically and physically stable rock, with low permeability, would "strongly inhibit" radiation from reaching the outside environment if waste canisters leaked. The National Academy of Sciences has also concluded that “geologic disposal remains the only scientifically and technically credible long-term solution available to meet safety needs.”

Three sites in northern Minnesota

Three of the most promising U.S. granite sites identified in the Sandia report are in northern Minnesota. The Minnesota sites are especially effective because of low water content and our lack of seismic activity.

The other good site is in Vermont’s granite, but Vermont officials have already vetoed the idea, stating that “it should be placed in the middle of nowhere.” Meaning Minnesota.

The concerns in Nevada and Vermont are apparently the result of radiation fear. The average U.S. resident receives approximately 300 annual millirems (mrems) of radiation from natural sources like radon, cosmic rays, airline flights, and eating foods like bananas and nuts, which contain potassium. This radiation has occurred since humans have been on earth, and it doesn’t hurt us, or humans would not exist. Persons who work in industries with higher radiation risk are allowed 5 rems/year, or 15 times the normal dose.

The individual-protection standard for geologic storage facilities sets an overall additional dose limit of 15 millirems per year for residents living in the vicinity of a national nuclear repository during and up to 10,000 years after the repository closes. 15 mrems is about equal to the dose received from two round-trip domestic airline flights. After 10,000 years through the period of geologic stability (out to 1 million years) the individual-protection standard is set at 100mrem/yr, a very safe level.

Opening a Yucca Mountain replacement facility in northern Minnesota is a multibillion-dollar business opportunity  with no significant risks to Minnesota’s people and environment. It’s an opportunity worth our consideration.

Rolf Westgard is a professional member, Geological Society of America. He frequently teaches in the University of Minnesota Lifelong Learning program. 

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Comments (41)

Choices are few . .

and I'm very dubious about nuclear power. Our civilization is dependent upon abundant energy, energy which under technologies I'm aware of can only be duplicated by coal, nuclear and natural gas. We cannot continue without accepting a solution to the waste problem. So I'm forced to concede that Mr. Westgard's proposal makes sense. Unfortunately, I'm also forced to concede that the politicians who are most likely to assume the leadership on this are the ones I'm least likely to vote for but for other reasons.

Thought about and ...

decided against.

Thinking about

Were you thinking about the radiation science, or something else?

The Land of 10,000 Nuclear Storage Units

"Opening a Yucca Mountain replacement facility in northern Minnesota is a multibillion-dollar business opportunity with no significant risks to Minnesota’s people"

I'm sure Mr. Westgard is well meaning but I've heard it before: "the peaceful atom"; "too cheap to meter"; "Completely safe".

Sounds to me like more self-interested corporate BS. The nuclear powers that be can keep their money.

our peaceful atom

safely supplies 17% of the world's electric energy and has saved billions of tons of emissions. The bit about too cheap to meter came from former AEC head, Lewis Strauss, who thought we were going to master nuclear fusion.

yes to nuclear waste disposal in MN granite

Rolf Westgard has performed heroic service with this article. The problem of high-level nuclear waste has been primarily political, not technical, but states - including Minnesota - took their potential granite repositories off the table. I hope MInnpost and others push this article out to legislative leaders for a formal hearing. Fighting climate change due to fossil fuel emissions demands that existing nuclear facilities continue to run as long as possible, that new ones be built if economically viable (not the case now), and that all the waste be disposed of safely. Minnesota granite has always been among the safest sites. Think of it this way - waste radioactive for 100,000 years rightly terrifies humans with our fragile record of civilization, but means nothing to stable 300 million year old granite.

Yes, the radiation science is a little scary....

Mr. Westgard, and as you stated, that 'fear' is the largest hurdle to get over. You have described the best to average scenario of storing in granite formations. What is the possible occurance should most storage containers, both steel and cement, deteriorate over time (as do the structures built with the same material) and end up leaking severely? How close to ground water aquafers are these 3 locations? I assume the concern to water supplies is toward aquafers rather than surface water.

Long term radiation risk

Actually in 300 years the material has decayed to a very small percent of its original radiaton..

Yes

The problem is impact on ground water. As the SANDIA study points out the areas they have identified have low risk. If you want concerns about ground water, in the state of Washington we have 177 large underground tanks with nuclear waste left from our Cold War nuclear weapons programs. DOE is spending billions trying to clean up that mess.

Water contamination

I believe we're currently storing large amounts of radioactive waste on an island in the middle of the Mississippi so the concern about surface water must not be too high.

transportation

The only viable route, interstate freeways, all come through the Twin Cities which would be a hard political sell. Science and politics as they found in NV are a tough mix. They spent Billions at Hanford, WA to figure out a way to encapsulate radioactive materials but the end result proved too dangerous. Some day they may figure out a way to safely store radioactive waste that is more politically acceptable.

Politics

Yes, the storage problem is primarily political.
There are thousands of safe U.S. shipments of nuclear material every year for both civilian and military needs.

The only reservation I have. . .

is the problem of transporting this waste to any site. Murphy's Law applies with a vengeance to any plan to transport radioactive nuclear waste in this country from point A to point B. Rail and truck are the only logical means. So are the truck drivers and the rail workers wearing hazmat suits bringing the stuff from California to Minnesota? And what happens if there's an accident? And there will be. I find the issues around transporting this waste to get to Minnesota far more problematic and disturbing than the idea of allowing the waste to be stored in a secure granite formation here.

Once again

Thousands of safe shipments of nuclear material every year in the U.S.
And the number will increase as we use more nuclear.
Supplying the increasingly nuclear US Navy is one requirement.

But, Rolf's emphasis is not

But, Rolf's emphasis is not on the radiation science (what little of it he gives here), but on the business opportunity we have, here "in the middle of nowhere," in Minnesota to take all that hot waste and store it.

We already have scientific assurances that mining the copper and nickel and other metals in the same area of Minnesota will take approximately 500 YEARS of remediating the damage to our fresh water--one laughs at the thought that PolyMet and their brother firms will be around for even one-fifth of that time. Water to sulfuric acid, etc.

And now: just put that never-goes-away waste nuclear fission stuff in that handy Minnesota rock formation. All those who don't want that nuclear waste are just know-nothings?

One must keep reminding scientists and engineers that people's lives, and their fears, are real, and must be taken into consideration along with the specific geological and business opportunities they envision for our state and nation. It's this kind of thinking that has devastated portions of the Third World, where there's no government, no free press, no public means to prevent private companies from exploiting an area as this article propose we do to Minnesota, simply on the scientific basis of "we can.".

Copper nickel mining fears

We can do that mining safely as well. Canada has demonstrated the techniques needed to neutralize those acids for an indefinite period.

Here we go again

Back in the 1980s, the federal government studied a number of sites in the upper midwest and North East for deep geological storage of nuclear waste. There were nine potential sites in Minnesota and some in Wisconsin and upper Michigan (besides some in the Northeast). The governor of MN (Perpich) established a commission to track the federal activities. The official position of Minnesota was to oppose the project. There were a large number of technical issues (as noted, transportation was one of them). Another issue was potential accidents at the surface that could contaminate the headwaters of one of three major watersheds. There were a variety of other issues. The federal government dropped the whole program.

Yikes!

I live in northeast Minnesota and I don't consider it to be the middle of no-where.
Who thinks up this stuff?

Fears

Those fears are certainly real; just not very well informed.
More than 100,000 Japanese survivors of the two atom bombs received very large radiation doses. They have been intently studied by a joint US/Japan project ever since,. On average they are living longer than the average Japan resident, with fewer cancers.

Hold on there ....

You're going to have to going to have to provide some citations for that claim dude.

Storing that radioactive spent fuel is a serious issue

The French have the right approach, reprocessing the material at their facility at La Hague. The dangerous 5% from their 58 reactors is vitrified in glass for storage, and the rest is recycled into new fuel.

too populated

There is no comparison between Minnesota and the Yucca Mountain area. There is nothing in the Yucca Mountain area, no people, and it's hard to find any animals, birds or insects. Even northern Minnesota has way too many people to be considered a replacement for Yucca Mountain.

As I indicated

You could build a subdivision at the entrance of Yucca Mountain and no one would be affected. You get as much radiation eating bananas.
Irrational fear after Three Mile Island, in which there were no injuries, caused the US to lose its leadership in a major industry.

Incredible

It is astounding to me that you would think it acceptable to cite statistics from the U.S. bombing of Japan to justify the 'safety' of transporting radioactive material to a site in northern Minnesota.To use the fact that a lot of people survived the bombing to justify the 'business opportunity' shows poor judgment. A 'multibillion business opportunity' does not automatically make it safe or practical to subject people and other living things in the landscape (including the millions of people who live near the roads used) to the risks of an accident. Not to mention the thousands of assumptions inherent in the argument, without any real data about the risks or money to be made.

No transport accidents.

That is the real data. Nothing astounding about it. It's just science and good practice.

The science isn't the real issue

Perception is. Is the money to be made enough to offset the economic black hole that would be created by the implementation of this plan? How far do you suppose the radius of property would extend from the site that would be essentially unsaleable, 100 miles? 200? Who do you think is going to put up a home, a cabin, a tar paper shack knowing that tons of nuclear waste is down the road? Whether their fears are credible is irrelevant, the vast majority of the population will not be taking your dispassionate, cooly scientific view on the subject. They'll see the words nuclear waste and hightail it the other direction as quickly as is possible. The economic destruction to whichever location foolish enough to accept this depository would be total, the political ramifications to anyone foolish enough to accept it, career ending. Science is wonderful, but it behooves scientists to recognize that their theories have to operate in a not always rational world.

Housing not required

You don't have to build a house next to the nuclear waste storage site. but if you do it won't hurt you.
But you can't escape the 300 millirems of radiation that we all get on average. that doesn't hurt you either.
They used to burn women from irrational fear of witches. Unfortunately, that sort of ignorant fear continues to the present.

Precisely the point

Just because you, (or the nuclear industry) would prefer that folks so called irrational fears of nuclear energy and its resultant waste would just be set aside, they are not going to be. As a result, you are forced to mitigate the economic ramifications those fears will present to any future creation of the waste depository. You don't get to just tell any prospective landowners, current residents, or any other stakeholder to "just deal with it". That's not how things work in the wider world outside academia, or business for that matter.

France is an excellant

France is an excellant example of a country that knows what to do with all of its nuclear waste. Why the US can't duplicate what they've done baffles me.

I think our current storage sites are just going to have to make do for the foreseeable future (ie next 50+ years). Our best hope is large reliable space transportation. We have an enormous incinerator 93 million miles away in the form of the Sun. Perhaps in 100-200 years we can shoot the waste into the sun for disposal. That's very pipe dreamy. But given people's present day fears, I think that's the only solution we have.

granite

The top photo caption reads "Granite is a tough, impermeable combination of silicon and feldspar." A better wording would be "Unfractured granite is a tough, relatively impermeable rock consisting mainly of quartz and feldspar."

Wikipedia rears its head

Guess what is in quartz and mica.

Further reading

It's funny

Here we have huge problem, be it political or technical that exists because the nuclear industry told us that spent fuel was never going to be a problem. This same industry continues tell us it's not a problem while they produce tons of new waste every year... without any means of disposing of it. When they started producing it, they had nowhere other than on-site holding ponds to keep it in, yet they produced it anyways and promised long term storage was never going to a problem. AND they kept telling us how cheap all of this was going to because THAT was the original rationale for building nuclear plants in the first place.

Go ahead, take their word for it. Nothing to worry about here, just dump it in our Granite, it's perfectly safe.

Look, the emphasis on radiation is deliberately misleading. It's not the radiation its the material itself that's dangerous and difficult to contain for long periods of time. All this business of how many "rads" you may be exposed to if stood next to a cask isn't the issue and Rolf knows it. The problem is when this material escapes it's containers and goes where its not supposed to go. This stuff remains lethal in very small doses for thousands of years.

"This stuff remains lethal in

"This stuff remains lethal in very small doses for thousands of years."

I feel pretty confidant our nuclear waste won't be on the earth for thousands of years. Eventually we'll launch it into the sun. That capability is a century or two away unfortunately. But given the impasse we're likely to be in for the foreseeable future, that's what we're left with.

The sun isn't the answer

Two problem with launching our nuclear waste into the sun:

1) I'm not sure you realize how much material we're talking about here. The cost of launching that into space would be enormous. We have around 134 million pounds of nuclear wast and it costs between $1,000 and $2,000 per pound to launch something into space. I get lost with that many zeros but I think we're talking trillions of dollars. That would be around 67,000 tons and it costs $2 million a ton so.... And that's now, by the time we would get a space program going to do this there would be be a lot more.

2) Space launch is dangerous, stuff can crash and blow up. You'd be looking at tens of thousands of rockets over the course of many many years and it's likely that something would blow up or crash. This is why the US hasn't used nuclear reactors in it's space craft.

The best thing would be to just beam it off he planet when we invent the transporters they have on Star Trek.

Just as a nit pick

Wasn't there a bit of controversy regarding the Cassini space probe due to the fact it was powered by a small reactor? Not to diminish the point you were making, that the idea of launching into space is a ridiculous pipe dream, it is, but accuracy is important.

Correct

Thanks Matt, I should more specific.

Well I think we could be

Well I think we could be surprised what's possible 200 years from now. Think back to 200 years ago and compare then with today.

Though I like the idea of Star Trek transporters. And scientists and engineers are working on that field. If society isn't going to allow a large depository, and we're too stupid to recyle 95% of our waste like the French do, then I guess we're going to need transporters.

Yes but....

Yes, if don't turn the earth into a wasteland we will certainly have unimagined technology in the future. However, we should just dump nuclear waste into the nearest granite deposit based on that assumption.

It may well be...

It may well be that granite formations will end up being our best bet for some period of time, we can't leave this stuff laying around the country indefinitely. All I'm saying is we need to do a better job making decisions about nuclear waste and nuclear power than we have thus far. I would to see a peer reviewed research, not just some "reports" that have generated by Sandia.

Minnesota and Nuclear Waste

I agree that this is a good time to have a 'hearing' on nuclear waste at the legislature. But possibly for a different reason. Now that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is proposing "indefinite" (i.e. permanent) storage at reactor sites as one of its "nuclear waste confidence" scenarios, we need to take a look at what this means for MN.

Fortunately it is possible to review the history of the search for a federal site in MN. The professional who staffed the state's Nuclear Waste Council deposited the records in the MN Historical Society archives, saying "we may need these again someday". Here is the link to the archive finding list: http://www.mnhs.org/library/findaids/ag0056.pdf. The geological issues proved to be far more complicated than expected.

Nuclear Waste Trivia: Does anyone remember what happened to the federal agents who tried to bore test holes on the Range?