Hazardous and Solid Waste

Yucca Mountain and Disposing Nuclear Waste

By law the U.S. DOE was required to develop a permanent geologic repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, and begin accepting waste for disposal on January 31, 1998. But after decades of investigations, design, engineering, and testing at a cost of $14 billion, the Yucca Mountain option appears to have died under overwhelming negative response from the public, scientists, and the state of Nevada.

Also, President Obama has fulfilled a campaign promise to Senator Harry Reid of Nevada by having the Secretary of Energy begin to develop plans to terminate construction of the Yucca Mountain repository.

On March 3, 2010, DOE submitted a formal motion to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to withdraw the application. But the DOE still has access to funds provided under NWPA to pursue a license for Yucca Mountain from NRC. It may be that until a better solution is realistically available, Yucca Mountain will never be entirely out of the picture.

When first investigated by nuclear scientists, Yucca Mountain appeared to possess the ideal criteria for a permanent storage site for nuclear waste. Key natural barriers include a dry climate, the depth and isolation of the Death Valley aquifer over which the mountain resides, its natural physical shape, and 1,000 feet of rock above both the repository and the water table. The natural barriers would be supplemented by engineered barriers, including the solid nature of the nuclear waste; double-shelled disposal canisters to encapsulate the waste and prevent radiation leakage; and drip shields composed of corrosion-resistant titanium to ward off any dripping water inside the repository for many thousands of years.

Development of Yucca Mountain has been occurring mainly with money from the Nuclear Waste Fund, which the federal government builds from fees paid by utilities that generate electricity from nuclear power. The fund now contains about $24 billion.

Problems that seem to have derailed Yucca Mountain include an extremely demanding radiation standard that has been set by EPA and that DOE is obligated to meet for 1 million years. DOE would be expected to use modeling to demonstrate to NRC how that standard would be met over the required time through a combination of natural and engineered barriers. Experts told GAO that this would be the most complex and ambitious probabilistic risk assessment ever undertaken.

DOE also told GAO that budget constraints are making it difficult to meet deadlines required by the licensing process. Meanwhile, NRC also reports that the license review is being slowed by budget shortfalls as well as reassignment or loss of staff that have been working for years on DOE’s application.

In addition, the state of Nevada continues to use every means at its disposal to terminate the project. For example, GAO reports that Nevada has denied the water rights DOE needs for constructing a rail spur and facility structures at Yucca Mountain. DOE officials told GAO that constructing the rail line or the facilities at Yucca Mountain without those water rights will be difficult.

Finally, GAO estimates that completing a repository at Yucca Mountain capable of storing 70,000 tons of nuclear waste, as required by NWPA, would cost between $27 and $39 billion. But 70,000 tons represents only the existing level of nuclear waste. An expansion that would accommodate an additional 80,000 tons of nuclear waste that, in one scenario, would be generated over the 147 years the repository would remain open, would require an additional $14 to $28 billion and 35 more years to complete.