Beyond Yucca Mountain: The Future of Nuclear Waste

Episode 7


Judy Treichel

Executive Director of the nonprofit Nevada Nuclear Waste Task Force, a citizens’ advocacy group


Steve Frishman

Geologist and nuclear technical and policy consultant to the state of Nevada

Beyond Yucca Mountain: The Future of Nuclear Waste

In this episode, Judy Treichel and Steve Frishman reflect on their experience with the state of Nevada and with citizen groups nationwide to get the message across that they do not believe Yucca Mountain is suitable for permanent nuclear waste disposal.

Note: This transcript is the raw transcript of this podcast. Minimal edits have been made only for clarity purposes.

Steve Frishman (0:10):

And as long as Yucca Mountain is out there on the table, there are going to be people who don’t want to think about anything else. In fact, what we need to do is essentially start over again.

Narrator (00:23):

Did you know that there are half a million metric tons of nuclear waste temporarily stored at hundreds of sites worldwide? In the U.S. alone, one in three people live within 50 miles of a storage site. No country has yet successfully disposed of commercial spent nuclear fuel, but it’s not for lack of a solution. So what’s the delay? The answers are complex and controversial. In this series, we explore the nuclear waste issue with people representing various pieces of this complicated puzzle. We hope this podcast will give you a clearer picture of Nuclear Waste: The Whole Story. We believe that listening is an important element of a successful nuclear waste disposal program. A core company value is to seek and listen to different perspectives. Opinions expressed by the interviewers and their subjects are not necessarily representative of the company. If there’s a topic discussed in the podcast that is unfamiliar to you, or you’d like to more closely review what was said, please see the show notes at

Kari Hulac (1:42):

Hello. I’m Kari Hulac, Deep Isolation’s Communication Manager Today I’m talking to Judy Treichel, Executive Director of the nonprofit Nevada Nuclear Waste Task Force, a citizens advocacy group, and Steve Frishman, a geologist and nuclear technical and policy consultant to the state of Nevada. The task force was founded to represent citizens concerned about the US government’s plans to build a mined repository at Yucca Mountain for the disposal of high-level radioactive waste. Judy and Steve have worked for decades with the state of Nevada and with citizen groups nationwide to get the message across that they do not believe the site is suitable for permanent nuclear waste disposal. Welcome, Judy and Steve. Thank you so much for joining us today on our podcast.

Judy Treichel (2:33):

Thank you. We’re happy to be here.

Kari Hulac (2:36):

Awesome. Awesome. Great. Well, I hope you’re doing well today. So first off you’ve been working on the issue of what to do with nuclear waste longer than most people, 30 years. What sparked your initial interest? And was there a point when you decided this would be your life’s work?

Judy Treichel (2:52):

Well before I ever got into nuclear waste in any kind of an official way, I worked for years to try to end nuclear weapons testing at the Nevada test site. And while I was still doing that, I went to a meeting and it was about testing at the test site. And one of the speakers, there was a man named Luther Carter who’s gone now, but at that time he was built as an environmentalist. And I wasn’t very pleased about his environmental reactions to testing. And during that meeting, he came over where I was and started a conversation and he knew that I was opposed to testing completely. And he said, what would you think about the idea of having us and testing at the Nevada nuclear testing site and instead have the state be willing to accept the nation’s nuclear waste and I’d thought, wow, this is crazy.

Judy Treichel (3:56):

And it immediately sounded to me like a game of nuclear poker where you were very likely to wind up with both. And at that point, I realized that we were in for a real battle if they were willing to even suggest things like that. And as a matter of fact, we did wind up with both testing going on and being targeted for nuclear waste because testing didn’t stop until in the nineties. And we were off to the races on Yucca Mountain before that time. So I think that’s when I realized it was going to start.

Kari Hulac (4:33):

And Steve, did you have a similar experience or anything you’d like to add there?

Steve Frishman (4:38):

Mine was quite different. In the late seventies, I was the research director and Vice President of the Texas Environmental Coalition. And I knew that the government was looking at varying salt deposits in Texas as possible repository sites. And there was an Environmental Impact Statement that ended up being the 1980 Environmental Impact Statement for Management of Commercial High-level Nuclear Waste. So I did the Environmental Coalitions comments on that EIS. And from that, I ended up being on a state agency advisory board, advising the Texas delegation on the writing of the Nuclear Waste Policy, because that environmental impact statement became the basis for the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which established deep geologic disposal as the policy for this country. So from there, I ended up being Director of the Texas Oversight Program for the Department of Energy’s work in Texas for the repository siting. I guess I just got stuck. I learned so much that I was involved in some other things at the same time, but I figured that I know so much about this now, I can’t let it go. So when the Nevada site became the only site for consideration in 1987, I was invited to come to Nevada as a consultant, and here I am 30 years later.

Kari Hulac (6:10):

So over that time, I know it’s a long time, so it might be hard to pick a few highlights, but if you can, which accomplishments around nuclear waste disposal, are you most proud of and why?

Judy Treichel (6:34):

Well, very little is going on right now, but at the very beginning, when Nevada was first singled out, there was a flurry of activity and the task force was formed by two other people and myself, and we jumped in with both feet and started working really hard at the beginning of 1988. And we went all over the state of Nevada then to rural towns, we did first of a kind meetings in the big cities and we just worked like crazy. And we weren’t trying to build opposition to Yucca mountain. What we were trying to do is just inform people so that they had a basis for being able to participate in public meetings and being able to make formal comments when they were allowed to do so. And so after 1988, Nevada’s legislature only comes into session in every odd year. So in 1989, we had built up so much recognition of the whole project and people were so into it that the legislature had all the cover, they needed to pass legislation against it. 

Steve Frishman (7:40):

And the thing that is, is settled, which was, we thought a good thing is that we established in 1989, the state policy that says that nuclear waste will not be stored or disposed in the state of Nevada. And we had good reason based on what we knew about Yucca mountain at the time, but what it really helped us settle was that all over the world or wherever you have controversies over nuclear waste, you end up with real social problems for people and families and even communities turn against each other for all the different possible reasons. And what we did by having legislation that settled the state policy that allowed the state agency, the Agency for Nuclear Projects to have policy guidance for the type of scientific and socio-economic work that was being done on behalf of the state.

Steve Frishman (8:38):

And occasionally through the years, we’ve had people try to force the state to say, but this, but that, and in each case, the policy has stood. And in fact, twice, our legislature has essentially reinforced that policy by passing resolution, supporting that policy. So other places have had major divisive issues and real problems. And in the state here, we very, we have a very large majority of people who support the state policy, which is that Yucca Mountain is not only unsafe, but it would be very bad for our economy. So we, that, that legislation was probably the most important thing that has happened within the state regarding this issue because we settled the policy.

Kari Hulac (9:35):

What do you think the change in administration is going to mean for the back end of the fuel cycle and permanent nuclear waste disposal? I imagine it’s, it’s just happened recently. You’ve been kind of sorting through all of the results as everyone else has, but what, you know, what are you thinking of for 2021 and beyond?

Judy Treichel (9:53):

Well, I guess I’m hoping that we have something that’s consistent where there’s a policy laid out or an attempt to make a policy. With the current administration, we’ve had problems because when President Trump was here in Nevada, he said that he opposed the project and that caught his Secretary of Energy and other advisers completely off guard. They had no idea. And they were actually in support of the project. So it’s just been kind of a confusing sort of thing. But we’re hoping that they decide that, or they realize that there was something very wrong about Yucca Mountain and go back to the drawing board, which is Steve’s expertise.

Steve Frishman (10:47):

And there, through the years, there have been various attempts to change the Waste Policy Act. And for some people, and, you know, adamantly propose that we must continue with licensing Yucca Mountain and the license application. That procedure has been suspended since 2010. So we’re 10 years with nothing going on at all, but there are still people who say, Oh, you got to go forward with it. And the reason it doesn’t go forward is because every year Congress has been convinced to not appropriate any money to go forward. So we’re sitting here 10 years of suspension. And as long as Yucca mountain is out there on the table, there are going to be people who don’t want to think about anything else. In fact, what we need to do is essentially start over again. We know the basics of the original Nuclear Waste Policy Act that talked about having regulations that were generally applicable to all general sites. You know, having radiation protection standards, having a, you know, site screening process that looks at different types of geology, but unfortunately 30 years later, we’re in a situation where we have to start again, if we’re ever going to make any progress, because as long as Yucca Mountain is on the table, you know, it’s a site that Nevada is not going to quit posing.

Steve Frishman (12:22):

And we have mountains of scientific information in the licensing proceeding before it stopped just the state of Nevada, nevermind, 18 other interveners, just the state of Nevada as 219 individual objections that are going to have to be mitigated. And that’s totally unheard of in nuclear facility licensing. So, and we’re prepared at the state level, we’re prepared to adjudicate every one of those 219. And in fact, in the past 10 years, we’ve developed about 25 more objections because of new information, new scientific information that has been developed since the license application. So until Yucca Mountain is off the table, I don’t think there is a chance that we’re going to get any durable policy regarding the ultimate disposal. There are moves right now for centralized interim storage, but interim to what if you don’t have a repository. And the way the Waste Policy Act was written to work, you don’t do interim storage between consolidated used fuel from reactors into one place or a couple of places.

Steve Frishman (13:40):

You don’t do that unless you know that you have a repository that is in the process because otherwise, it’s not interim. And this is what’s happening right now with a couple of sites in the country. Yeah. They’re private sector companies that are trying to become interim storage and they’re just saying, because of the way the law’s written, it’ll go to Yucca Mountain. Well, it’s not going Yucca Mountain, so it’s not interim storage. So what we need to do is face facts, start over again. We’ve learned an awful lot in the last thirty years about the technical basis for what we need to know in order to have, as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission says, reasonable assurance of safety over about a million-year period. And we know a lot more than we did in 1987. And I think there’s a possibility of people are willing to use some intellectual power rather than political power. I think there’s a possibility that we can ultimately get to safe isolation of this waste.

Kari Hulac (14:51):

So you’re a geologist, Steve. You mentioned deep geologic disposal. Is that what you view as the most credible solution to the problem?

Steve Frishman (14:59):

There’s no perfect solution, but as I said before, the Waste Policy Act of 1982 established deep geologic disposal as a policy, and that’s the policy in every other country in the world looking at what to do with the waste from their nuclear power reactors. And I think it is possible. And I think we can develop probably sufficient reasonable assurance if we do the geology properly. And, in order to do that, we first have to have a set of technically based standards that say that there’s a whole bunch of geology that we don’t want to look at. It’s an exclusionary process first. And then now what are the characteristics of geology that we do want to look at? And because we’re part of a large continent, we have a variety of geology and some that is worth looking at, some that we know is not worth looking at.

Steve Frishman (16:07):

So if we started out with, first of all, generally accepted criteria for what could ultimately be a geologic setting that we wanted to use, then siting comes after that. And one of the problems we had with Yucca Mountain is we had generally acceptable standards, Yucca Mountain didn’t meet the standards, so they didn’t ditch Yucca Mountain, they changed the standards. We probably need about 10 years to just do the scientific work before we ever talk about what this site is better than this site. We need to fully understand the geologic criteria we want and whether they’re geologic settings in the country that might fit those criteria, before we ever go down to, we’re going to look at this site and this site. And I think if, you know, we need to become sort of politically mature enough to be able to spend about whatever, maybe 10 years doing something that is first of all, unfixable, if you’re pretty good and second, needs to last for about a million years. So we can’t go for instant gratification. And in fact, as we’ll talk later, the system does not require instant gratification.

Judy Treichel (17:30):

I think it’s also important to have public consent or have the public on your side before you start anything too. Once the public, like Nevada, understands that this is just not in their best interest, and once you’ve got a lot of public opposition, it’s just not going to work. So if they have, as Steve said if they have standards and they have regulations that have to be met and the public believes that those are trustworthy and safe enough and goes along with that, and then is willing to work with the agency or whoever it is that’s doing the work. I think you can get towards success much more than you could ever this way.

Kari Hulac (18:21):

Are you familiar with any successful examples globally for how to deal with nuclear waste?

Steve Frishman (18:26):

Well, nobody’s done really well. There are two, at least two examples globally that are coming close and that’s in Finland and in Sweden and they’ve gone, both countries have gone through long, long process and yeah, have developed a technical basis to where their licensing agencies are satisfied that they can go forward, but they’re continuing to look at some problems that are still known to exist, but in Sweden now they have a site and through decades of a siting process, that people are pretty well satisfied that they have been sufficiently involved in the whole process over the decades. And they’re probably going to eventually end up with a repository. In Finland, they’re a little bit farther ahead. And they again have the public support for what they’re doing.

Steve Frishman (19:33):

They also have a relatively small amount of waste, and they don’t have a big bureaucracy that is pushing and pulling their whole processes. The whole thing has been, the technical work has been done by a relatively small group of people over decades, and they have public support for it. So those two are leading towards what you might say is not success, but at least supportable progress to the isolation, the permanent isolation of waste. And I think it’s very likely that they will succeed at least in being able to feel satisfied that they’re done the very best that they can. And that’s about all we can expect from something where we have no control over the next million years.

Kari Hulac (20:36):

That makes sense. Judy, any thoughts on that topic as well?

Judy Treichel (20:41):

Well, in both of the sites that he’s talking about in Sweden and Finland, those are both either in or near communities where there was a major nuclear power plants that were going, and the people had experience with those. They had not had any bad experiences that I’ve heard of. And so they kind of were, it began with a trust in the, in, in nuclear as, as it was. And in Nevada, the huge contrast here is that Nevada has never had a nuclear reactor and we’re thousands of miles away from the majority of the reactors. So it just seemed so crazy that the stuff would start out on the East coast and come all the way across the country to a place that really had no experience with them and had no interest.

Steve Frishman (21:32):

Other than having been bombed.

Kari Hulac (21:33):

So, so Nevada’s experience with the nuclear weapons development created a very different feeling among the communities there about the waste itself.

Judy Treichel (21:44):

Well, and it started out with atmospheric testing where you had mushroom clouds coming out of the Nevada test site and mostly heading East to Northeast. So you’ve got downwind victims that a lot of people died. A lot of people were injured and there was a lot of damage to ranchers and farmers and, and the, if there was ever any trust, it was totally gone when the government refused to acknowledge that they had hurt people. It was insane. People were getting under their desks at school to be spared danger, danger from Russian bombs, but we had our own blasting off. And so it was just an inconceivable way to move into something like nuclear waste.

Steve Frishman (22:36):

And the only reason we have Yucca Mountain is because the Energy Department’s predecessors for 20 years spent looking around the country quietly for nuclear waste disposal sites and every time they got caught, because they didn’t tell the governors or the states what they were doing every time they get caught, they essentially got run out of the state.

Steve Frishman (23:00):

And the only reason we have Yucca Mountain is because in 1977, the General Accounting Office suggested to the Department that maybe you want to look at places that already have defense nuclear facilities, because they’re more accepting of nuclear facilities just primarily because it’s a lot of jobs. So the only reason we have Yucca Mountain at the Nevada test site is because the Department started looking at places where the government had already done nuclear or already had nuclear facilities. And so they expected that the people in Nevada would be very accepting of this next thing. Well, they kind of missed the point because the people in Nevada didn’t like getting bombed. So the whole thing backfired on them. 

Kari Hulac (23:54):

So what I’m hearing, you know, some of the elements of a successful nuclear waste disposal, siting process, I mean, I hear the importance of trust, being open about, you know, the fact that an agency is looking for a location, kinda being transparent. Any other elements to mention?

Judy Treichel (24:15):

Well, I think you hit it right there because when they tried to go from nuclear weapons to nuclear waste, we either were lied to, or we were told it was a matter of national security and people got real tired of hearing that something that was hurting them or that they needed to know, they just couldn’t know because they didn’t have security clearances. So if you can’t have something like that. And I guess another thing that the country needs to look at is whether this should be done privately or through the government, because there’s problems either way, or there may be advantages either way. And I don’t know about that, but that’s one of the things that I think should be talked about too.

Kari Hulac (25:02):

Do you think in Nevada, the door’s closed for Nevada, do you think if there was a process that was handled in an open way and there was a safe, deep geological option and Nevada’s geology was appropriate, is the door closed for Nevada at this point?

Judy Treichel (25:20):

Nevada is probably out, and you could find almost any place in the United States that had less earthquakes. Then we have, you could cut out California and cut out Alaska and Nevada is third in the number of earthquakes that we have. And we’ve got a few old volcanoes that are completely off the scope too, when you’re looking at a million years. So I think you could probably find somewhere, you didn’t have to worry about so many earthquakes and the possibility of volcanoes.

Steve Frishman (25:54):

Well, before 1987, there was a bumper sticker when we knew that Yucca Mountain was on the table. There’s a bumper sticker that still shows up all over the place whenever people start talking about Yucca mountain and that’s, that is not a wasteland and the rest of the country seems to think we might be, but we’ve decided that we are not.

Kari Hulac (26:17):

I have one other question I want to add, how do you get people to realize this is a serious environmental problem that does need a solution? Have you, you know, come up with a way to educate people or any ideas about how do you get people to kind of care really, and, and realize that this needs to be solved.

Judy Treichel (26:38):

One of things you have to do is to understand that people have already a sense of what they want and what they don’t want. And I know that when every, whatever the Department of Energy would hit a wall, they’d say, well, this is insane, we’ve got to get out there and educate these people. And it really meant that you had to get out and do some arm twisting and that’s why you find a lot of the lousy projects in this countries going to very poor areas where people need the money or need the jobs or something. But if you’re going to try and sell something, I’m thinking about, there’s almost the same situation right now in this country with the virus that we have running wild. And the thought that the solution is the vaccine. And you’re seeing a whole lot of people in the country who aren’t going to trust a vaccine.

Judy Treichel (27:38):

If something comes down the road next week and they say, okay, we found it, we’ve got this vaccine, give me your arm. You find a lot of resistance. And before a vaccine is going to work and going to work by work I mean, a lot of people will accept it, they’re going to have to see evidence that it’s there. They’re going to have to see people who they trust saying, I think this is good. Here’s my arm. And I think the same thing goes along with nuclear waste, there are people who the general public will listen to and maybe are not friends of the government, or they’re not believed to be the experts, but people have to have their own way of seeing something that they can trust. And it all comes down to trust. 

Steve Frishman (28:28):

There’s also, one of the things that would build the element of trust. And that’s that, you know, right now, because of the way Waste Policy Act was amended, we only have one solution, and that one solution is unacceptable. And so part of building trust is that those who are decision-makers actually have alternatives to look at and can hear the real discussion of the pros and cons of alternatives. And this is why I’m very glad right now to know that there are people thinking of alternatives other than just a big underground mine. I think that’s beneficial to the whole process of maybe getting us to an acceptable point at some time. So we, in our, in our lives, we always face problems, but rarely are we forced to say there is only one solution. We need to be able to look at alternatives and make informed choices.

Steve Frishman (29:44):

And part of the reason we’re in the condition we’re in right now is that Yucca Mountain is not the result of an informed choice. So I think it’s good that there are people thinking, well, you know, geology might be the way to go, but a great big underground mine may not be the only way to use geology. It’s all the problem that we’re facing. So I think it’s, again, it always comes back to trust. And in this case, trust involves decision-making. That is the way we normally make decisions rather than being pulled. You’re the one. So there you have it.

Kari Hulac (30:27):

Great. Well, thank you, Judy and Steve so much for joining us today. I really learned a lot and I appreciate you taking the time to speak with us.

Judy Treichel (30:37):

Okay. Thank you. Thank you.  

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