Fukushima Aftermath/Yucca Mountain

Yucca Mountain Repository is the proposed U.S. Department of Energy deep geological repository storage facility for spent nuclear reactor fuel and other radioactive waste. The repository is located in a desert on federal land adjacent to the Nevada Test Site in Nye County, Nevada, within Yucca Mountain, a ridge line in the south-central part of the U.S. state of Nevada. The ridge is composed of volcanic material (mostly tuff) ejected from a now-extinct, caldera-forming supervolcano.

Yucca Mountain
Nuclear waste locations USA.jpg

The Department of Energy was to begin accepting spent fuel at the Yucca Mountain Repository by January 31, 1998 but has yet to do so because of a series of delays due to legal challenges, concerns over how to transport nuclear waste to the facility, and political pressures resulting in underfunding of the construction. There is currently no official date set for opening the facility, and as a result spent fuel continues to accumulate at reactor sites and other above-ground temporary storage locations across the country.


Spent nuclear fuel is the radioactive product of electric power generation at commercial nuclear power plants, and high-level radioactive waste is the by-product from reprocessing spent fuel, including for the production of fissile material at defense facilities. In 1982, the United States Congress established a national policy to solve the problem of nuclear waste disposal. This policy is a federal law called the Nuclear Waste Policy Act.[1] Congress based this policy on what most scientists worldwide agreed is the best way to dispose of nuclear waste.

The act made the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) responsible for finding a site, building, and operating an underground disposal facility called a geologic repository. The recommendation to use a geologic repository dates back to 1957 when the National Academy of Sciences recommended that the best means of protecting the environment and public health and safety would be to dispose of the waste in rock deep underground.

The Department of Energy began studying Yucca Mountain in 1978 to determine whether it would be suitable for the nation's first long-term geologic repository for over 70,000 metric tons (150 million pounds) of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste currently stored at 121 sites around the nation. In 2007, the DOE announced it was seeking to double the size of the Yucca Mountain repository to a capacity of 135,000 metric tons, or 300 million pounds.[2]

Yucca Mountain is located in a desert on federal land adjacent to the Nevada Test Site in Nye County, Nevada. It is approximately 80 miles northwest of Las Vegas, the fastest-growing metropolitan area in the United States.

On December 19, 1984, the Department of Energy selected ten locations in six states for consideration as potential repository sites. This was based on data collected for nearly ten years. The ten sites were studied and results of these preliminary studies were reported in 1985. Based on these reports, President Reagan approved three sites for intensive scientific study called site characterization. The three sites were Hanford, Washington; Deaf Smith County, Texas; and Yucca Mountain.

In 1987, Congress amended the Nuclear Waste Policy Act and directed DOE to study only Yucca Mountain, which is already located within a former nuclear test site. The Act provided that if, at any time, Yucca Mountain is found unsuitable, studies will be stopped immediately. In theory, if that ever happens, the site will be restored and the DOE will seek new direction from Congress.

On July 23, 2002, President George W. Bush signed House Joint Resolution 87,[3] allowing the DOE to take the next step in establishing a safe repository in which to store the country's nuclear waste. The Department of Energy is currently in the process of preparing an application to obtain the Nuclear Regulatory Commission license to proceed with construction of the repository.

On July 18, 2006 the DOE agreed upon March 31, 2017 as the date to open the facility and begin accepting waste.

On September 8, 2006 Ward (Edward) Sproat, a nuclear industry executive formerly of PECO energy in Pennsylvania, was nominated by President Bush to lead the Yucca Mountain Project.

Following the 2006 mid-term Congressional elections, Nevada Senator Harry Reid, a long time opponent of the repository, became the Senate Majority Leader, putting him in a position to greatly affect the future of the project. Reid has said that he would continue to work to block completion of the project, and is quoted as having said: "Yucca Mountain is dead. It'll never happen."[4] In the 2008 Omnibus Spending Bill, the Yucca Mountain Project's budget was reduced to $390 million.

Lacking a repository, however, the federal government will owe to the utilities somewhere between $300 and $500 million per year in compensation for failing to comply with the contract it signed to take the spent nuclear fuel by 1998.[5]

The facilityEdit

A tour group entering the North Portal of Yucca Mountain

The purpose of the Yucca Mountain project is to comply with the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 and develop a national site for spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste storage. The present prime contractor for the project is Bechtel SAIC (a consortium of government contractors Bechtel Corporation and Science Applications International Corporation). The consortium had approximately 900 employees working on the project in 2008. The main tunnel of the Exploratory Studies Facility is U-shaped, 5 miles (8 km) long and 25 feet (8 m) wide. There are also several cathedral-like alcoves that branch from the main tunnel. It is in these alcoves that most of the scientific experiments are conducted. The emplacement drifts (smaller diameter tunnels branching off the main tunnel) where waste will be stored have not been constructed since they require a construction authorization by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission per 10CFR 63.

As of 2013, thirty-eight billion US dollars had been spent on the project,[6] making Yucca Mountain the most studied piece of geology in the world. The Department of Energy (DOE) estimates that it has in temporary storage over 100 million U.S. gallons of highly radioactive waste and 2500 metric tonnes (2756 short tons) of spent fuel from the production of nuclear weapons and from research activities.[7] The cost of the facility is being paid for by a tax on each kilowatt hour of nuclear power and by the federal government for disposal of weapons and Naval nuclear waste. Based on the 2008 cost estimate, approximately 73% is funded from consumers of nuclear-powered electricity and 27% by the federal government.[8]

In 1998 and 2000, independent cost and schedule reviews of the program were performed by DOE contractors. On the latter review, the contractor concluded that DOE’s schedule for licensing, constructing, and opening the repository by 2010 was optimistic by about two years and that DOE’s estimate of the total cost of the program over its 100-plus-year lifetime — $58 billion (2000 dollars) — was understated by about $3 billion.[7]

The tunnel boring machine (TBM) that excavated the main tunnel cost $13 million and was 400 feet (125 m) in length when in operation. It now sits at its exit point at the South Portal (south entrance) of the facility. The short side tunnel alcoves were excavated using explosives.


Map showing the location of Yucca Mountain in southern Nevada, to the west of the Nevada Test Site

The U.S. Department of Energy was to begin accepting spent fuel at the Yucca Mountain repository by January 31, 1998. However, 10 years after this deadline, the repository at Yucca Mountain is still over a decade away from being opened, and the opening date continues to be delayed:

As recently as 2005, the U.S. Department of Energy had been targeting a 2012–2015 opening date. However, the U.S. Department of Energy announced in 2006 that the earliest possible opening date is March 2017 and that a more realistic opening date is September 2020. The U.S. Department of Energy announced in 2007 that the opening date is likely to slip an additional year. The U.S. Department of Energy does not anticipate submitting a repository license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission until mid-2008.

The project is widely opposed in Nevada and is a hotly-debated national topic. Although about 15 percent of the electricity consumed by the Las Vegas metropolitan area is supplied by the Palo Verde nuclear power plant in Arizona and ten percent of the waste will be from America's military nuclear programs, a two-thirds majority of Nevadans still feel it is unfair for their state to have to store nuclear waste when there are no nuclear power plants in Nevada. The nuclear waste is planned to be shipped to the site by rail and/or truck in robust containers approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The transport of spent fuel in Europe and Asia is routine with few safety or security issues. Since the early 1960s, the U.S. has safely conducted more than 3,000 shipments of spent nuclear fuel without any harmful release of radioactive material. This safety record is comparable to the worldwide experience where more than 80,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel have been transported since 1970 — an amount greater than the planned total amount of spent nuclear fuel that would be shipped to Yucca Mountain.[9]

Other proponents of the site argue that Nevadans' objections constitute little more than "not-in-my-backyardism." In addition, the Nevada Test Site (NTS), which borders Yucca Mountain to the east, is the location where over 900 nuclear weapons have been detonated and continues to serve as the primary location for any future nuclear weapons tests, if needed. The NTS currently hosts a variety of research activities, both nuclear and otherwise, and is the host to two low-level radioactive waste sites.

Many Nevadans' opposition stemmed from the so-called "Screw Nevada Bill," the 1987 legislation halting study of Hanford and Texas as potential sites for the waste before conclusions could be reached.

One point of concern has been the standard of radiation emission from 10,000 years to 1 million years into the future. On August 9, 2005, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed a limit of 350 millirem per year for that period.[10] In October 2007, the DOE issued a draft of the Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement in which it shows that for the first 10,000 years mean public dose would be 0.24 mrem/year and that thereafter to 1,000,000 years the median public dose would be 0.98 mrem/year, both of which are substantially below the proposed EPA limit.[11] These doses are also far lower than the 3 mrem someone receives in just one roundtrip flight from Nevada to Washington, D.C. from cosmic radiation.[12]

On February 12, 2002, U.S. Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham made the decision that this site was suitable to be the nation's nuclear repository. The governor of Nevada had 90 days to object and did so. However, the Congress overrode the objection. If the governor's objection had stood, the project would have been abandoned and a new site chosen.

In August 2004 the repository became an election issue, when Senator John Kerry said that as president he would abandon the plans. He eventually lost to George W. Bush, who was re-elected.

Because of delays in construction, a number of nuclear power plants in the U.S. have resorted to storing waste on-site indefinitely in nearly impervious steel and concrete casks. It is possible that a temporary facility may open at the Yucca Mountain site or somewhere else in the American West if opening of the underground storage continues to be delayed.

On February 17, 2006, the Department of Energy’s Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management (OCRWM) released a report confirming the technical soundness of infiltration modeling work performed by U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) employees. In March 2005, the Energy and Interior departments revealed that several U.S. Geological Survey hydrologists had exchanged e-mails discussing possible falsification of quality assurance documents on water infiltration research.

In March 2006, the majority staff of U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works issued a 25-page white paper "Yucca Mountain: The Most Studied Real Estate on the Planet." The conclusions were:[13]

  • Extensive studies consistently show Yucca Mountain to be a sound site for nuclear waste disposal
  • The cost of not moving forward is extremely high
  • Nuclear waste disposal capability is an environmental imperative
  • Nuclear waste disposal capability supports national security
  • Demand for new nuclear plants also demands disposal capability

Because of questions raised by the State of Nevada and Congressional members about the quality of the science behind Yucca Mountain, the Department of Energy announced on March 31, 2006 the selection of Oak Ridge Associated Universities/Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (a not-for-profit consortium that includes 96 doctoral degree-granting institutions and 11 associate member universities) to provide independent expert reviews of scientific and technical work on the Yucca Mountain Project.[14]

DOE stated that the Yucca Mountain Project will be based on sound science. By bringing in Oak Ridge for independent reviews to assess technical work, DOE will ensure the highest level of expertise and credibility as they move the project forward. This award gives DOE access to the established brain trust of academic and research institutions to help DOE meet their mission and legal obligation to license, construct, and open Yucca Mountain as the nation’s repository for spent nuclear fuel.

On January 18, 2006, the OCRWM announced that it will designate Sandia National Laboratories as its lead laboratory to integrate repository science work for the Yucca Mountain Project. "We believe that establishing Sandia as our lead laboratory is an important step in our new path forward. The independent, expert review that the scientists at Sandia will perform will help ensure that the technical and scientific basis for the Yucca Mountain repository is without question," OCRWM’s Acting Director Paul Golan said. "Sandia has unique experience in managing scientific investigations in support of a federally licensed geologic disposal facility, having served in that role as the scientific advisor to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, New Mexico."[15] Sandia began acting as the lead laboratory on October 1, 2006 (at the beginning of the federal fiscal year).

Radiation standardsEdit

Original standardEdit

The EPA established its Yucca Mountain standards in June 2001.[16] The storage standard set a dose limit of 15 millirem per year for the public outside the Yucca Mountain site. The disposal standards consisted of three components: an individual dose standard, a standard evaluating the impacts of human intrusion into the repository, and a groundwater protection standard. The individual-protection and human intrusion standards set a limit of 15 millirem per year for a reasonable maximally exposed individual, who would be among the most highly exposed members of the public. The groundwater protection standard is consistent with EPA's Safe Drinking Water Act standards, which the Agency applies in many situations as a pollution prevention measure. The disposal standards were to apply for a period of 10,000 years after the facility is closed. Dose assessments were to continue beyond 10,000 years and be placed in DOE's Environmental Impact Statement, but were not subject to a compliance standard. The 10,000 year period for compliance assessment is consistent with EPA's generally applicable standards developed under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. It also reflects international guidance regarding the level of confidence that can be placed in numerical projections over very long periods of time.

Court of Appeals finds standard Non consistent with NAS recommendationsEdit

Shortly after the EPA first established these standards in 2001, the nuclear industry, several environmental and public interest groups, and the State of Nevada challenged the standards in court. In July 2004, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit found in favor of the Agency on all counts except one: the 10,000 year regulatory time frame. The court did not rule on whether EPA’s standards were protective, but did find that the time frame of EPA’s standards was not consistent with the National Academy of Sciences’ recommendations.

EPA's proposed revised ruleEdit

EPA proposed a revised rule in August 2005 to address the issues raised by the appeals court. The new proposed rule limits radiation doses from Yucca Mountain for up to one million years after it closes. No other rules in the U.S. for any risks have ever attempted to regulate for such a long period of time. Within that regulatory time frame, the EPA has proposed two dose standards that would apply based on the number of years from the time the facility is closed. For the first 10,000 years, the EPA would retain the 2001 final rule’s dose limit of 15 millirem per year. This is protection at the level of the most stringent radiation regulations in the U.S. today. From 10,000 to one million years, EPA proposes a dose limit of 350 millirem per year. This represents a total radiation exposure for people near Yucca Mountain that is no higher than natural levels people live with routinely in other parts of the country. One million years, which represents 25,000 generations, includes the time at which the highest doses of radiation from the facility are expected to occur. EPA's proposal requires the Department of Energy to show that Yucca Mountain can safely contain wastes, even considering the effects of earthquakes, volcanic activity, climate change, and container corrosion over one million years. As noted in the above section labelled Opposition, the current analysis indicates that the repository will cause less than 1 mrem/year public dose through 1,000,000 years.

The NWPA limits capacityEdit

The NWPA limits the capacity of the proposed Yucca Mountain repository to 63,000 MT of initial heavy metal in commercial spent fuel. The 103 U.S. commercial reactors currently operating will produce this quantity of spent fuel by 2014.[17] This, however, is assuming that the spent fuel rods are not reprocessed. Currently, the US has no reprocessing plant, even though this would decrease nuclear waste by 60%.



Looking west atop Yucca Mountain June 7, 2005.

The formation that makes up Yucca Mountain was created by several large eruptions from a caldera volcano and is composed of alternating layers of ignimbrite (welded tuff), non-welded tuff, and semi-welded tuff. Tuff has special physical, chemical and thermal characteristics that some experts believe make it a suitable material to entomb radioactive waste for the hundreds of thousands of years required for the waste to become safe through radioactive decay.

The volcanic units have been tilted along fault lines, thus forming the current ridge line called Yucca Mountain. In addition to these faults, Yucca Mountain is criss-crossed by fractures, many of which formed when the volcanic units cooled. While the fractures are usually confined to individual layers of tuff, the faults extend from the planned storage area all the way to the water table 1000 feet (300 m) below. It is feared by some that, after the predicted containment failure of the waste containers several tens of thousands of years from now, these cracks may provide a route for movement of radioactive waste that dissolves in the water flowing downward from the desert surface. Officials state that the waste containers will be stored in such a way as to minimize or even nearly eliminate this possibility. Even with faults and fractures, tuff is slightly permeable to water, but due to the depth of the water table it is estimated that by the time the waste enters the water supply it will be safe.

However, the area around Yucca Mountain received much more rain in the geologic past and the water table was consequently much higher than it is today, though well below the level of the repository. Critics contend that future climate cannot be predicted to 10,000 years so it is optimistic to assume that the area will always be as arid as it is today. Most geologists that have worked at the site still maintain that the geology will adequately slow the rate of waste seepage to protect water supplies even if the local climate becomes much wetter.[18]


Nevada ranks third in the nation for current seismic activity. Earthquake data bases (the Council of the National Seismic System Composite Catalogue and the Southern Great Basin Seismic Network) provide current and historical earthquake information. Analysis of the available data in 1996 indicates that, since 1976, there have been 621 seismic events of magnitude greater than 2.5 within a 50-mile radius of Yucca Mountain. Reported underground nuclear weapons tests at the Nevada Test Site have been excluded from this count.[19]

DOE has stated that seismic and tectonic effects on the natural systems at Yucca Mountain will not significantly affect repository performance. Yucca Mountain lies in a region of ongoing tectonic deformation, but the deformation rates are too slow to significantly affect the mountain during the 10,000-year regulatory compliance period. Rises in the water table caused by seismic activity would be, at most, a few tens of meters and would not reach the repository. The fractured and faulted volcanic tuff that comprises Yucca Mountain reflects the occurrence of many earthquake-faulting and strong ground motion events during the last several million years, and the hydrological characteristics of the rock would not be changed significantly by seismic events that may occur in the next 10,000 years. The engineered barrier system components are robust under seismic loads and will provide substantial protection of the waste form from seepage water, even under severe seismic loading.

Volcanic historyEdit

A series of large explosive volcanic eruptions occurred to the north of Yucca Mountain. These eruptions produced dense clouds of volcanic ash and rock fragments, which melted or compressed together to create layers of rock called tuff, forming the mountains and hills of the region.

The large-scale volcanic eruptions that produced Yucca Mountain ended about 12 million years ago. This explosive volcanism produced almost all (more than 99 percent) of the volcanic material in the Yucca Mountain region.

Several million years ago, a different type of eruption began in the area. These eruptions were smaller and much less explosive. These small eruptions were marked by lava and cinders seeping and sputtering from cones or fissures. The last such small eruption occurred about 80,000 years ago. The remaining volcanic material (less than 1 percent) in the Yucca Mountain region is a result of these smaller eruptions.

Yucca Mountain is not in an area where continental plates meet, nor is it located near any volcanic hot spots. In fact, experts consider the Yucca Mountain region one of the least active volcanic fields in the western United States.

Transportation of wasteEdit

Proposed Transportation Route of SNF through Nevada

The planned methods for transporting spent nuclear fuel to Yucca Mountain include road and rail routes. In all cases, waste will be transported in an NRC approved spent nuclear fuel shipping cask.


Within Nevada, the planned primary mode of transportation is via rail through the Caliente Corridor. This corridor starts in Caliente, NV, travelling along the western and northern borders of Nevada for approximately 200 mi (322 km). At this point, it turns south to reach Yucca Mountain.[20]

Other options that are being considered include a rail route along the Mina corridor. This rail route would originate at the Fort Churchill Siding rail line, near Wabuska, Nevada. The proposed corridor would proceed southeast through Hawthorne, Blair Junction, Lida Junction and Oasis Valley. At Oasis Valley, the rail line would turn north-northeast towards Yucca Mountain. Use of this rail corridor by the Department of Energy would require permission from the Walker River Paiute Tribe in order to cross their land. As the first 54 miles of the proposed corridor is owned by the Department of Defense, additional permission from the DoD would have to be granted.

In states outside of Nevada, the planned routes, dates and times of transport will be secret for security reasons. State or tribal representatives will be notified before shipments of spent nuclear fuel enter their jurisdictions.


Nevada consultant Dr. Robert Halstead, who has been a transportation adviser to the state of Nevada since 1988, stated regarding transportation of the high level waste, "They would heavily affect cities like Buffalo, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, in the Chicago metropolitan area, in Omaha," says Halstead. "Coming out of the south, the heaviest impacts would be in Atlanta, in Nashville, St. Louis, Kansas City, moving across through Salt Lake City, through downtown Las Vegas, up to Yucca Mountain. And the same cities would be affected by rail shipments as well."

Spencer Abraham (DOE) on the other hand has stated: "I think there’s a general understanding that we move hazardous materials in this country, an understanding that the federal government knows how to do it safely."[21]

Cultural impactEdit

Native Americans believe that they have inhabited their traditional homelands since the beginning of time. Archaeological surveys have found evidence that Native Americans used the immediate vicinity of Yucca Mountain on a temporary or seasonal basis (Stoffle et al. 1990, p. 29). Native Americans emphasize that a lack of abundant artefacts and archaeological remains does not mean that their people did not use a site or that the land is not an integral part of their cultural ecosystem. Native Americans assign meanings to places involved with their creation as a people, religious stories, burials, and important secular events. The traditional stories of the Southern Paiute, Western Shoshone, and Owens Valley Paiute and Shoshone peoples identify such places, including the Yucca Mountain area.

Native Americans believe that cultural resources are not limited to the remains of native ancestors but include all natural resources and geologic formations in the region, such as plants and animals and natural landforms that mark important locations for keeping their historic memory alive and for teaching their children about their culture. Equally important are the water resources and minerals in the Yucca Mountain region. Native Americans used traditional quarry sites to make tools, stone artefacts, and ceremonial objects; many of these sites are power places associated with traditional healing ceremonies.

According to Native Americans, the Yucca Mountain area is part of the holy lands of the Western Shoshone, Southern Paiute, and Owens Valley Paiute and Shoshone peoples. Native Americans generally do not concur with the conclusions of archaeological investigators that their ancestors were highly mobile groups of aboriginal hunter-gatherers who occupied the Yucca Mountain area before Euromericans began using the area for prospecting, surveying, and ranching. They believe that these conclusions overlook traditional accounts of farming that occurred before European contact. Yucca Mountain and nearby lands were central in the lives of the Western Shoshone, Southern Paiute, and Owens Valley Paiute and Shoshone peoples, who shared them for religious ceremonies, resource uses, and social events. Native Americans value the cultural resources in these areas, viewing them in a holistic manner. They believe that the water, animals, plants, air, geology, and artefacts are interrelated and dependent on each other for existence.


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External linksEdit