Academic Environmental Studies
Environmental Studies

The Yucca Mountain Nuclear Controversy

Introduction

Yucca Mountain Yucca Mountain. (Source: United States Geological Survey)

President Barack Obama spoke of “building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants” in his 2010 State of the Union address.14 While his statement heartened the nuclear power industry, a nuclear renaissance in the United States faces many obstacles. Chief among them is the problem of how and where to store nuclear waste.

If Obama hopes to resolve the waste-disposal issue, he should look to the fate of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository as a guide. The proposed repository, in a remote desert in southern Nevada, was to be a federal disposal site for nuclear material from around the country. The project never moved forward, however. For twenty years, activists and Nevadan politicians fought Yucca Mountain, accusing the government of practicing bad science and selecting an unsafe site for the repository. Finally, the Obama Administration itself declared the repository dead. Yucca Mountain provides a case study in how not to develop a waste-disposal plan.

This website investigates why the opposition to Yucca Mountain was so strong. Opponents viewed Yucca Mountain through what I call a “politics-over-science” framework. That is, they believed that the government invested so much time and money in Yucca Mountain that it kept moving forward with the site even when clear evidence of its unsuitability was discovered. The politics-over-science framework both colored opponents’ perceptions of the project and gave them a compelling rhetorical device with which to fight it. To demonstrate this, I examine two events from the Yucca Mountain project in which the politics-over-science framework played a prominent role.

The website is broken into several sections. The Background section has two subsections, one on the science behind nuclear waste, and one on the historical origins of the Yucca Mountain project. The next two sections form the main body of the paper; each section looks at a major event from the controversy over Yucca Mountain in detail. In the Conclusion section, I discuss the termination of the Yucca Mountain project.

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