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The Yucca Mountain Repository is the United States Department of Energy proposed deep geological repository storage facility for spent nuclear reactor fuel and other radioactive waste. Although the proposal has been highly contested by environmentalists and residents near the area, it was approved in 2002 under the Presidency of George W. Bush. In 2009 the Obama Administration stated that the site is no longer an option and proposed to eliminate all funding in the 2009 United States Federal Budget, except that needed to answer inquiries from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, "while the Administration devises a new strategy toward nuclear waste disposal." On March 5, 2009, Energy Secretary Steven Chu told a Senate hearing "the Yucca Mountainmarker site no longer was viewed as an option for storing reactor waste." This is a change in direction from the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, amended in 1987, which designated Yucca Mountain as the national repository for high level nuclear waste. Congress must also vote to change the Act; however, in July 2009 the United States House of Representatives voted 388 to 30 to not defund the Yucca Mountain repository in the FY2010 budget.

The repository is located in a desert on federal land adjacent to the Nevada Test Sitemarker in Nye County, Nevadamarker, about northwest of the Las Vegas metropolitan area. The repository lies within Yucca Mountain, a ridge line in the south-central part of the U.S. state of Nevadamarker.

The ridge is composed of volcanic material (mostly tuff) ejected from a now extinct caldera-forming supervolcano. 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.

The US Department of Energy (DoE) has submitted a license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for the construction. The preliminary process of checking over and 'docketing' the application was finished September 8, 2008. The NRC now has a statute time limit of 3 to 4 years to complete its safety analysis and public hearings. The earliest estimated date for starting construction is 2013. The Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management's current projected completion date for the project is 2020 but even if the NRC's review of the project goes well, the future of Yucca Mountain would still depend on the political climate in the USA. Congress voted to cut the project's FY2008 budget from $494 million to $390 million, the lowest award since 2002, when the Yucca Mountain site was approved, and continuing a four-year trend in which awards have been significantly below the amounts requested by DoE.
Nuclear Waste Locations


Spent nuclear fuel is the radioactive by-product of electric power generation at commercial nuclear power plants, and high-level radioactive waste is the by-product from reprocessing spent fuel to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons. 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, which 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 Sciencesmarker 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. 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, Washingtonmarker; Deaf Smith County, Texasmarker; 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. If that should happen, the site will be restored and DOE will seek new directions from Congress.

On July 23, 2002, President George W. Bush signed House Joint Resolution 87, allowing the DOE to take the next step in establishing a safe repository in which to store the country's nuclear waste. On July 18, 2006 the DOE proposed March 31, 2017 as the date to open the facility and begin accepting waste based on full funding. 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."

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.

In the 2008 Omnibus Spending Bill, the Yucca Mountain Project's budget was reduced to $390 million. Despite this cut in funding, the project was able to reallocate resources and delay transportation expenditures to complete the License Application for submission on June 3, 2008. Lacking an operating repository, however, the federal government owes 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.

On April 23, 2009, Senators Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) and John McCain (R-Arizona) introduced legislation to provide "rebates" from a $30 billion federally managed fund into which nuclear power plants had been paying, so as to fund the canceled project.

The facility

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 management and operating contractor as of April 1, 2009 for the project is USA-RS LLC (a consortium of government contractors, URS Corporation, Shaw Corporation and Areva Federal Services LLC). The consortium employs about 100 on the project in 2009 after budget cuts led to layoff of almost 800 employees on March 31, 2009. Sandia National Laboratory has the scientific responsibility for postclosure analysis and ensuring compliance with the NWPA for one million years. The main tunnel of the Exploratory Studies Facility is U-shaped, long and 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 would have been stored were not constructed since they required a construction authorization by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission per 10 CFR 63.The Nuclear Waste Policy Act limits the capacity of the proposed Yucca Mountain repository to 63,000 MT of initial heavy metal in commercial spent fuel. The 104 U.S. commercial reactors currently operating will produce this quantity of spent fuel by 2014, assuming that the spent fuel rods are not reprocessed. Currently, the US has no civil reprocessing plant.

As of 2008, US$9 billion had been spent on the project which has made Yucca Mountain one of the most studied pieces of geology in the world. The Department of Energy (DOE) estimates that it has over 100 million U.S. gallons of highly radioactive waste and of spent fuel from the production of nuclear weapons and from research activities in temporary storage. The cost of the facility is being paid for by a combination of a tax on each kilowatt hour of nuclear power and by the taxpayers for disposal of weapons and naval nuclear waste. Based on the 2001 cost estimate, approximately 73 percent is funded from consumers of nuclear powered electricity and 27 percent by the tax payers.

The latest Total System Life Cycle Cost presented to Congress on July 15, 2008 by Director Sproat is $90 billion. This cost, however, cannot be compared to previous estimates since it includes a repository capacity about twice as large as previously estimated over a much longer period of time (100 years vs 30 years). Additionally, the cost of the project continues to escalate due to the lack of sufficient funding to most efficiently move forward and complete the project.

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


The U.S. Department of Energy was to begin accepting spent fuel at the Yucca Mountain repository by January 31, 1998. However, 11 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 due to the continued lack of full funding. The U.S. Department of Energy anticipates submitting a repository license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in June 2008.

Because of delays in construction, a number of nuclear power plants in the United States have resorted to dry cask storage of waste on-site indefinitely in nearly impervious steel and concrete casks. To keep these plants operating, it may be necessary to construct a temporary facility at the Yucca Mountain site or somewhere else in the American West if opening of the underground storage continues to be delayed.

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 Verdemarker nuclear station in Arizonamarker 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. 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 met.

Other proponents of the site argue that Nevadans' objections constitute little more than not-in-my-backyard. In addition, the Nevada Test Sitemarker (NTS), which borders Yucca Mountain to the east, is the location where over 900 nuclear weapons have been detonated and continues to serve as 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.

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 United States Environmental Protection Agency proposed a limit of 350 millirem per year for that period. 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. These doses are also far lower than the 3 mrem someone receives in one roundtrip flight from Nevadamarker to Washington, D.C.marker from cosmic radiation.

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 United States 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 he would abandon the plans if elected.

In March 2005, the Energy and Interiormarker departments revealed that several U.S. Geological Survey hydrologists had exchanged e-mails discussing possible falsification of quality assurance documents on water infiltration research. 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 employees. In March 2006, the majority staff of the 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:

  • 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

On January 18, 2006, DOE OCRWM announced that it would designate Sandia National Laboratoriesmarker 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 Plantmarker in Carlsbad, New Mexicomarker." Sandia began acting as the lead laboratory on October 1, 2006.

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 expert reviews of scientific and technical work on the Yucca Mountain Project. DOE stated that the Yucca Mountain Project will be based on sound science. By bringing in Oak Ridge for review of technical work, DOE will seek to present a high level of expertise and credibility as they move the project forward. This award gives DOE access to 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.

There was significant public and political opposition to the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository project in Nevada. An attempt was made to push ahead with the project and override this opposition. But for large projects which would take decades to complete, there is every chance that sustained local opposition will prevail, and this happened with the Yucca Mountain project. Successful nuclear waste storage siting efforts in Scandinavia have involved local communities in the decision-making process and given them a veto at each stage, but this did not happen with Yucca Mountain. Local communities at potential storage and repository sites "should have early and continued involvement in the process, including funding that would allow them to retain technical experts".

Radiation standards

Original standard

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) established its Yucca Mountain standards in June 2001. 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 to a reasonably 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 inconsistent with NAS recommendations

Shortly after the EPA first established these standards in 2001, the nuclear industry, several environmental and public interest groups, and the State of Nevadamarker 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 ruled that EPA’s 10,000-year compliance period for isolation of radioactive waste was not consistent with National Academy of Sciencesmarker (NAS) recommendations and was too short. The NAS report had recommended standards be set for the time of peak risk, which might approach a period of one million years. By limiting the compliance time to 10,000 years, EPA did not respect a statutory requirement that it develop standards consistent with NAS recommendations.

EPA's rule

EPA published in the Federal Register a final rule in 2009. The new rule limits radiation doses from Yucca Mountain for up to 1,000,000 years after it closes. Within that regulatory time frame, the EPA has 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 established a dose limit of 100 millirem per year. EPA's rule requires the Department of Energy to show that Yucca Mountain can safely contain wastes, 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 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.

Transportation of waste

Proposed Transportation Route of SNF through Nevada
The nuclear waste is planned to be shipped to the site by rail and/or truck in robust containers known as spent nuclear fuel shipping casks, approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.


Within Nevada, the planned primary mode of transportation is via rail through the Caliente Corridor. This corridor starts in Calientemarker, traveling along the western and northern borders of Nevada for approximately . At this point, it turns south to reach Yucca Mountain.

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 Wabuskamarker. The proposed corridor would proceed southeast through Hawthornemarker, 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 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.


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 70,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel have been transported since 1970 — an amount approximately equal to the total amount of spent nuclear fuel that would be shipped to Yucca Mountain. However, cities are still concerned about the transport of radioactive waste on highways and railroads that may pass through heavily populated areas. 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." "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."

Cultural impact

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). Some Native Americans do not concur with the conclusions of archaeological investigators that their ancestors were highly mobile groups of hunter-gatherers who occupied the Yucca Mountain area before Euroamericans 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 Southern Paiute, Western Shoshone, and Owens Valley Paiute and Shoshone peoples, who shared them for religious ceremonies, resource uses, and social events. Some religious 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 artifacts are interrelated and dependent on each other for existence.


Nuclear waste produced by the newly designed Westinghouse AP1000 nuclear reactor can be stored indefinitely in water on the plant site.

In May 2009, Secretary Steven Chu stated "Yucca Mountain as a repository is off the table. What we're going to be doing is saying, let's step back. We realize that we know a lot more today than we did 25 or 30 years ago. The NRC is saying that the dry cask storage at current sites would be safe for many decades, so that gives us time to figure out what we should do for a long-term strategy. We will be assembling a blue-ribbon panel to look at the issue. We're looking at reactors that have a high-energy neutron spectrum that can actually allow you to burn down the long-lived actinide waste. These are fast neutron reactors. There's others: a resurgence of hybrid solutions of fusion fission where the fusion would impart not only energy, but again creates high-energy neutrons that can burn down the long-lived actinides. ...

"Some of the waste is already vitrified. There is, in my mind, no economical reason why you would ever think of pulling it back into a potential fuel cycle. So one could well imagine—again, it depends on what the blue-ribbon panel says—one could well imagine that for a certain classification for a certain type of waste, you don't want to have access to it anymore, so that means you could use different sites than Yucca Mountain, such as salt domes. Once you put it in there, the salt oozes around it. These are geologically stable for a 50 to 100 million year time scale. The trouble with those type of places for repositories is you don't have access to it anymore. But say for certain types of waste you don't want to have access to it anymore—that's good. It's a very natural containment. ...whereas there would be other waste where you say it has some inherent value, let's keep it around for a hundred years, two hundred years, because there's a high likelihood we'll come back to it and want to recover that.

"So the real thing is, let's get some really wise heads together and figure out how you want to deal with the interim and long-term storage. Yucca was supposed to be everything to everybody, and I think, knowing what we know today, there's going to have to be several regional areas."

This statement of course conflicts with the existing federal law, the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, as amended in 1987 that makes Yucca Mountain the national repository for high level nuclear waste. Until Congress changes this law, President Obama and Secretary Chu are merely proposing a change in national direction. In July 2009, the House of Representatives voted 388 to 30 to not defund the Yucca Mountain repository in the FY2010 budget.

See also


  1. A New Era of Responsibility, The 2010 Budget, p. 65.
  2. Hebert, H. Josef. 2009. “Nuclear waste won't be going to Nevada's Yucca Mountain, Obama official says.” Chicago Tribune. March 6, 2009, 4. [1] Accessed 3-6-09.
  3. Application for Yucca Mountain store goes in
  4. Quarterly Progress Report To Congress U.S. Department Of Energy Office Of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management 2nd and 3rd Quarters FY 2008
  5. Culler, Floyd L. 1957. Status report on the disposal of radioactive wastes. Oak Ridge, TN: Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
  6. Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments of 1987. 101 Statutes at large 1330-227, 42 U.S. Code 10101 et seq.
  7. Graham, McCain push ‘rebates’ from fund for nuclear waste site, The State, April 24, 2009
  8. NRC: Locations of Independent Spent Fuel Storage Installations
  9. Rodney C. Ewing and Frank N. von Hippel. Nuclear Waste Management in the United States -- Starting Over, Science, Vol. 325, 10 July 2009, p. 152.
  10. Vandenbosch, Robert, and Susanne E. Vandenbosch. 2007. Nuclear waste stalemate. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 111, 190-191
  11. Nuclear Energy Institute v. EPA, 373 F.3d 1251 (D.C. Cir. 2004).
  12. U.S. National Research Council, Committee on Technical Bases for Yucca Mountain Standards. 1995. Technical Bases for Yucca Mountain standards. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
  13. Vandenbosch, Robert, and Susanne E. Vandenbosch. 2007. Nuclear waste stalemate. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 111).
  14. MinaFeasabilityStudyRev01_26OCT06_alt1.pdf
  15. Westinghouse certain of safety, efficiency of nuclear power, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, March 29, 2009
  16. The secretary of energy talks with Technology Review about the future of nuclear power post Yucca Mountain

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