By Scott Manning
Former Village Councillor Gerard Gagliano, CEO of the technology security company Prodentity, is concerned about the future of the stalled Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository project and about future nuclear waste repository projects. Nuclear waste storage is a serious problem in the United States. Waste generated from nuclear power production and from military nuclear weapon systems is radioactive and potentially deadly to people and to the ecosystem if the waste materials are improperly stored. Additionally, these waste products remain radioactive for thousands of years, meaning that a highly secure location and facility must be designated to store nuclear waste.
The U.S. government designated Yucca Mountain in Nevada to be the site for permanent nuclear waste storage in the 1987 Nuclear Waste Policy Act. The site was intended to be used to store high level radioactive waste (HLW), which is defined as highly radioactive materials from spent nuclear fuel in reactors. According to Gagliano, Yucca Mountain was a good choice to store the nuclear waste material. Yucca Mountain is dry and barren, making the location suitably isolated and stable for the storage of radioactive material. Yucca Mountain is also in the Nevada Test Site in the Nellis Air Force Range, so the site would be protected from trespassing. Finally, geology at the site indicated that the location was safe and stable enough to store nuclear waste far underground.
Despite these advantages, the proposed repository site encountered serious political opposition. Harry Reid, a U.S. senator from Nevada, opposed the development of the repository site. Reid argued that the proposed site was overly expensive and scientifically flawed. Gagliano explains that the proposal never garnered widespread support from Nevada citizens. In 2010, the Department of Energy (DOE) ultimately withdrew its license to construct the project, which effectively ended any prospects for building nuclear waste storage in Yucca Mountain. Gagliano’s company Prodentity was hired in 2001 to develop the security regimen for the proposed Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository project. Prodentity developed a comprehensive security plan that involved physical, information, and network security considerations.
Physical security entails the infrastructure and human personnel required to keep the site isolated from outsiders. By implementing electronics, Prodentity designed a system to ensure that only authorized persons were allowed to access the facility. This involved designing alarm systems that would detect breaches. Physical security is imperative because the design and construction of the storage system would be sensitive to any disruptions or changes inside of the storage area.
Information security considerations focused on securing sensitive information. Prodentity supplemented information security by developing training protocols for workers so that anyone operating or building the site would be properly trained. And network security involved the programming of autonomous rail cars that would deliver and move nuclear waste cargo into the facility. This programming effort required security because the site had to be protected against cyberattacks that could manipulate or derail the railcars. For example, the security network had to defend against the risk that a faux server could access the control systems in the storage system and send a railcar on a dangerous errand. Prodentity was awarded the security job because Gagliano had been granted patents on much of the security technologies needed to design and implement a comprehensive security system. Prodentity designed a software environment that housed the security infrastructure and modernized its technology over the years, but the company did not use its designs because of funding issues and later the effective termination of the project.
Gagliano and Prodentity are currently evaluating the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) site near Carlsbad, New Mexico to see if the site can be approved for the storage of HLW. But Gagliano suspects that the site is not adequate for HLW due to a 2014 waste leak at the site. Although the leak was contained with minimum environmental impact, it exposed geology concerns. This leaves the United States without a nuclear waste storage site for HLW. According to Gagliano, there are over 130 sites in the country, mostly run by commercial power plants, where nuclear waste is stored. Gagliano argues that this current model of localized storage of nuclear waste seems to be more dangerous than a single storage facility deep underground. And given the country’s history with nuclear weapons and nuclear power, a nuclear waste storage site is needed for old nuclear waste regardless of whether nuclear activity continues in the future.
The issue remains where and when a new nuclear storage facility for HLW will be developed. As more and more people move into previously unoccupied parts of the United States, the number of isolated candidates for nuclear storage shrink, and Gagliano is unsure if nuclear storage will ever become more popular among citizens. With the end of the Yucca Mountain Project and without any suitable alternatives, the United States is without a permanent HLW storage facility.