Academic Environmental Studies
Environmental Studies

The Yucca Mountain Nuclear Controversy

Background

Scientific Background

Nuclear Waste Storage Pool A storage pool for spent fuel. Waste is kept in pools like these until it cools sufficiently for dry storage. (Source: Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management)

The government intended to use Yucca Mountain as a repository for high-level radioactive waste. Such waste comes from a variety of sources. The majority originates as spent fuel from commercial nuclear reactors: pellets of uranium that have exhausted their energy potential over three or four years of use and have come to consist of a mixture of extremely dangerous chemicals, including plutonium. Other sources include medical reactors, Navy vessels powered by nuclear reactors, and atomic weapons.6

Disposal of high-level radioactive waste is immensely difficult. Such waste is extremely dangerous to humans, and must be stored in heavily shielded (and very expensive) facilities. The task is complicated by the unimaginably long durations for which this waste is radioactive, in some cases on the order of tens of millions of years.12 A permanent disposal solution must not only completely prevent leakage of radioactive material into the environment, but remain impervious to climatic or geological disaster for a period thousands of times longer than the history of civilization.

The United States, as yet, has no disposal facilities for high-level nuclear waste which meet these standards. Instead, waste is stored on an ad-hoc basis. Commercial nuclear plants and governmental reactors store their own waste, typically in pools of water in concrete basins or in dry storage in steel or concrete chambers. There are 121 such storage facilities across the country.6 These solutions are temporary, and existing storage space is rapidly being exhausted. Moreover, these sites must remain under heavy guard at all times, lest terrorists or other criminals attempt to steal the waste.

Yucca Mountain was meant to solve these problems. First, it was supposed to be resilient against leakage. The area around Yucca Mountain was believed to be extremely dry and free of geological activity, so that the waste would remain safe for millennia. Second, it was fairly far from population centers. Thus, any leakage that did occur would presumably have no effect on humans. Third, it was to be much simpler to defend against terrorists and criminals than the various ad-hoc sites distributed throughout the country. (This website does not address this third belief. However, many opponents did raise questions about whether storing a massive amount of waste at one site was really safer.) These beliefs, however, turned out not to be entirely true, giving rise to the Yucca Mountain controversy.

Historical Background

Nuclear repositories come packaged with all the makings of a controversy: nuclear power, nuclear weapons, terrorism, and the environment all rolled into one. The siting of such a facility demands a deliberate, scientific, accountable process. This, however, is not what happened.

Congress, recognizing the importance of deliberateness and thoroughness, passed an eminently sensible and even-handed bill in 1982 providing for the selection of a nuclear repository, the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. Lobbyists, however, quickly descended upon lawmakers, and convinced Congress in 1987 to sidestep public debate by passing legislation short-circuiting the process and declaring Yucca Mountain the site of the repository. Once this decision had been made, the Department of Energy began sinking billions of dollars into Yucca Mountain, and soon would brook no dissent on the wisdom of siting a repository there. It took over 20 years to reverse the bureaucratic momentum and put a stop to Yucca Mountain.

For the first few decades of the atomic era, nuclear waste disposal was handled on an ad-hoc basis. Temporary storage facilities were established at reactors and defense sites. However, these sites were expensive to operate, and gradually filled up. Recognizing these problems, Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act in 1982, directing the Department of Energy to establish a permanent disposal facility.

Potential Repository Sites A map showing the ten sites named in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 as candidates for hosting federal nuclear waste repositories. (Source: Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management)

The NWPA provided a comprehensive, and on the whole quite fair, system for creating a repository. The legislation named ten sites (the product of substantial prior study) for the DOE to consider. The DOE was to conduct studies of each of these, examining their geological feasibility and the impact that a repository at their locations would have on the environment. The DOE was to present three of these ten to the President in 1985; the President would choose the final site. (The DOE was then to study the remaining sites further and recommend another three for a second repository; the process never actually reached this stage.)

The legislation also took public opinion into account. Congress recognized that there would be opposition to a repository wherever it was located. Lawmakers therefore mandated that the DOE coordinate closely with states or affected Indian tribes throughout the site selection process. Moreover, the legislation gave states (and tribes) veto power; specifically, the governor or state legislature could veto a decision to place a repository in their state. The veto could only be overruled by majority vote in both chambers of Congress. The legislation amounted to a strong attempt to ensure that the public had a voice in the site selection process.

The process, however, did not move forward as envisioned. The DOE recommended three sites to the President in 1985: the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington, a salt formation in Texas, and Yucca Mountain. Lobbyists immediately went to work. The Texans and Washingtonians proved more adept than the Nevadans, and convinced Congress to pass an amendment to the NWPA directing the DOE to drop all other sites and place the repository at Yucca Mountain. The amendment became known as the “Screw Nevada Bill.”10

Once the decision was made to site the repository at Yucca Mountain, bureaucratic inertia made it irreversible. The DOE invested billions of dollars in studying and preparing the site over the years. Soon, it became infeasible to even suggest stopping Yucca. The governor of Nevada, Kenny Guinn, testified before Congress in 2005:

In 1987, when Congress decided to arbitrarily abandon the step-by-step, scientifically based approach to repository site selection embodied in the original Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 and singled out Nevada’s Yucca Mountain as the only site to be considered, it did so for purely political reasons. And, frankly, it has been all down hill from there. What began as a noble effort to blend science and policy into a sound approach for solving a difficult and controversial technical problem has deteriorated into a quagmire of politics where the laws of expediency prevail over the laws of science.11

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