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Moon Seen As Nuclear Waste Repository
by Leonard David

This article was originally published on Space.com

As the debate rages over using the Yucca Mountain as a burial ground for thousands of tons of radioactive material, a better site for unwanted nuclear waste holds its mute vigil in the skies above the Nevada desert: the Moon.

After 20 years of study, last July President Bush signed a bill making Yucca Mountain the planned site to house 77,000 tons of nuclear refuse. The site is to be open for business by 2010, located in Nevada desert, 90 miles (150 kilometers) from that gambling Mecca, Las Vegas.

 

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Since its approval, politicians, scientists, lawyers, environmental activists, and protesting citizens have been locked in heated dispute over the $58 billion project.

Advocates of the plan say the repository site is safe. Radioactive materials can be responsibly and securely tucked away in the mountain for some 10,000 years.

However, others fear, among a list of worries, that transporting nuclear waste over city streets and state highways is asking for trouble, as well as being a tempting target for terrorists.

"No site for a long term, nuclear waste repository within Earth's biome or accessible to low-tech terrorist threat is acceptable," argues Sherwin Gormly, an environmental engineer for Tetra Tech EM Incorporated in Reno, Nevada.

Gormly contends that the waste issue is the single most important problem limiting nuclear power development. A revolutionary change, he said, is required to break the impasse.

"We need to seriously reconsider more advanced concepts, including repository options on the Moon," Gormly said.

MIRVing the Moon

In the past, thoughts about a lunar nuclear waste repository have come and gone.

A new twist in the Gormly plan is using off-the-shelf intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), warhead targeting technology, and a reusable suborbital launch vehicle. It's an idea whose time may have returned, he said, broaching the notion last month at a Return to the Moon workshop held in Houston, Texas, held by the Space Frontier Foundation.

The concept employs a low-cost, highly reliable suborbital space plane. Flying to high altitude, the piloted plane then dispatches an ICBM upper stage assembly. Multiple Independent Reentry Vehicle (MIRV) hardware, guidance equipment, and modified reentry vehicles carrying a casks of plutonium or waste material top this stage, which ignites and speeds into space.

An internal targeting system within the reentry vehicles precisely places the casks of waste headlong onto an outbound lunar trajectory.

The target would be a small lunar crater with steep sides. In later years, the flight path of the casks could be aided by final guidance equipment installed on the crater rim. That will assure an even more accurate bulls-eye impact of the incoming waste-carrying containers.

One by one, the casks smack into the Moon. The soft deep lunar regolith in the impact area should ensure proper waste burial. Plowing into the lunar surface at high speed, the waste would be buried under several feet of glassified regolith, Gormly said.

The impact area would be highly contaminated, the environmental engineer said, so a clearly delineated repository area would be needed. "However, the problem of waste migration would be eliminated because the lunar surface has no hydrosphere."

Retrieval, reuse, reprocessing

The situation in Nevada is a classic case of the "Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY) syndrome," Gormly said. Furthermore, the reality of the situation is that waste streams from medical sources and weapons grade plutonium production are also of concern.

"A solution outside of the biome and out of casual reach must be found," Gormly said.

"The lunar surface is a sterile, hard radiation environment with great geological stability and no potential to pollute the Earth biomea potential that is inevitable to all Earth sites due to groundwater," Gormly said. "NIMBY politics don't apply to the lunar surface at this time and can be avoided in the future by good planning and negotiation of beneficial use agreements," he added.

Once deposited on the Moon, nuclear materials would be of potential value. Access to the lunar repository site by future Moon dwellers could be regulated. Retrieval, reuse, even reprocessing of the nuclear material can enhance both lunar operations and further deep space commerce, Gormly speculated.

"The reality of the situation is that this material is a political liability today and a resource tomorrow," Gormly told SPACE.com.

The development of a lunar waste repository is an off-world opportunity to develop positive political and social momentum. This proposal is simple, safe, and uses current off-the-shelf technology, Gormly said.

Not so fast

Gormly shouldn't be so quick to attempt to unload Earth's nuclear rubbish on our nearest neighbor, says Mike Duke, a lunar expert at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Co.

"This doesn't appear to be a practical proposal at the current state of technical development," Duke told SPACE.com. "In the proposed configuration, it would essentially end lunar exploration."

Duke said that even the highest reliability attained by a space booster also comes with catastrophic launch failure probabilities. Then it's a matter of acceptable risk of how much nuclear material might come back at Earth.

Lastly, the impact of these nuclear waste-carrying casks on the Moon would not bury them in glass, Duke said. They would be distributed widely on the Moon, as impacts tend to include most of the impactor in the ejecta - the material tossed out from the high speed crash, he said.

"The Moon would quickly become off-limits to human exploration and development. If a technique for soft landing could be incorporated, this problem would be minimized; however, that is likely to be quite expensive," Duke said.