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Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository

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The Yucca Mountain facility is the proposed nuclear waste repository for the United States. It is located in Yucca Mountain range in Nevada. It has been a major source of controversy in the past 10 years. It was supposed to have begun accepting nuclear waste in early 2000 but since then it has been met with great resistance by new scientific discoveries of the surrounding geography and the people of Nevada. This article will examine the Yucca Mountain repository, address the concerns raised against it, and will determine whether the facility is ideal for the storage of nuclear waste.

When the project was originally announced it was thought to have been a great place for such a facility. It is in a remote location in Nevada, underneath a mountain that was thought to have suitable geology to contain large amounts of nuclear radiation without contaminating the surrounding environment. This information has since been called into question. There have been reports questioning the geology of the area around the proposed facility along with reports now indicating that there may be significant seismic activity in the area.

Other than the scientific hurdles the project has had to overcome, it has also run into its share of social issues. The people of Nevada are not too happy to have their state become a “dump” for the nation’s radioactive material. Nevada’s people, along with their elected officials, have been fighting to keep this facility from ever opening. The people of Nevada have an objection to the transportation of large amounts of radioactive material through their state. They see the potential for accidents that could cause damage to citizens and property.

The United States is a growing country with growing energy needs and it will need a place to keep the radioactive waste that is a byproduct from such energy production. It is clear that there will eventually need to be an answer to deal with the growing problem of radioactive waste, but is Yucca Mountain the answer?


The history of Yucca Mountain as a proposed nuclear waste repository site began in 1982 with the passage of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. This act established guidelines for the selection of a permanent nuclear waste repository. In 1987, the act was amended to establish Yucca Mountain as the only site to be considered for construction of a nuclear waste repository (“Yucca Mountain — FAQs.”).

There has been much opposition to this decision and many debates on whether Yucca Mountain is truly a safe site for storage of radioactive material. Finally, in 2009, it was announced that Yucca Mountain was no longer considered a viable option for the site of a permanent nuclear waste repository (“US Nuclear Power Policy”).

The current volume of nuclear waste stored at power plants is still relatively small. If all the spent nuclear fuel produced within the last 50 years were to be stacked end to end, it would only cover an area the size of a football field to a depth of 7 yards. This amount of nuclear waste is manageable and does not yet require permanent storage (“Safely Managing Used Nuclear Fuel”). However, United States energy consumption has grown at a steady rate and shows no sign of slowing down, and this growth of energy consumption will result in a growth in the production of spent nuclear fuel (“US Energy Consumption”). The United States needs to find an adequate site for a nuclear waste repository in the near future. With the advancements in knowledge and technology since 1987, newer and safer methods of storage have been proposed. It remains to be determined whether if a new method or site should be used or if construction on the Yucca Mountain facility should be continued.

Nature of Spent Nuclear Fuel

One of the dangerous byproducts of operating a nuclear power plant is spent nuclear fuel. Spent nuclear fuel is categorized as a high-level waste.

The United States follows an “open” nuclear fuel cycle. This means that used nuclear fuel is not recycled. Once the nuclear fuel is “used up” in the reactor, it is immediately disposed of. This section will mostly cover the last half of the fuel cycle (“Recycling Used Nuclear Fuel”).

For most reactors, their fuel source consists of ceramic uranium fuel pellets encased in long stainless steel metal tubes forming fuel rods. These rods are grouped together to form fuel assemblies, which are used to power the reactor (“The Fuel Cycle in Brief”).

When this fuel undergoes the process of fission, they form fission fragments. After a certain period of time, the amount of fission fragments and transuranics contained within the fuel reach an undesirable level. Usually within 12-24 months of use, this used fuel is removed from the reactor (“Used Fuel Management”).

When the spent fuel is removed from the reactors, it is highly radioactive and gives off extreme amounts of heat. This fuel is then moved to an interim storage facility, usually on site at the power plant. For most plants, this means that the fuel is kept in steel-lined concrete pools of water. The water helps keep the fuel cool and acts as a radiation shield while the fuel’s radiation levels decrease. The U.S. Nuclear Reactor Regulatory Commission has deemed that spent fuel could be safely stored like this for at least 120 years (“Safely Managing Used Nuclear Fuel”).

This storage was never meant to be permanent, and the spent fuel is then supposed to be stored at a designated permanent nuclear waste repository. However, the United States has yet to determine an official permanent storage facility. Yucca Mountain was approved in 2002 as an adequate geological site for waste storage (“Yucca Mountain — FAQs.”). However as of 2009, it is no longer considered an option for storing reactor waste. While the total volume of nuclear waste is still considered relatively small and manageable, the amount of spent fuel can only be expected to increase in the future as the United States’ energy consumption continues to increase, and an adequate permanent repository must be found.

Yucca Mountain Repository

The Facility

The proposed Yucca Mountain Nuclear Repository would be the only repository of its kind in the United States. Currently, nuclear waste is being temporarily stored in over 120 locations in 39 states (Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management). It is also estimated by the Department of Energy that the United States has over 100 million gallons of radioactive waste and 2,500 metric tons of nuclear waste in these temporary storage facilities. The nuclear repository is supposed to be a national long-term storage site for spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste. Billions of dollars and 20 years of research has gone into the investigation and planning of Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository. Due to President Obama’s funding for the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, construction on the waste repository has ceased due to lack of funds.

Workers enter the main tunnel of Yucca Mountain.
Workers enter the main tunnel of Yucca Mountain. (source)

Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman stated that the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Repository would be able to store “77,000 metric tons of high-level nuclear waste” (Neff, Erin). In order to store the large amount of nuclear waste, the repository would need about 40 miles of tunnels. However, the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 limited the amount of nuclear waste to 70,000 metric tons of initial heavy metal in commercial spent fuel (Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982). The Department of Energy also has several rules and restrictions to the nuclear repository. For example, the facility at Yucca Mountain must store the nuclear waste “about one thousand feet below earth’s surface and about one thousand feet above the nearest water table” (Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management).Added to the natural barriers of Yucca Mountain itself, there will also be man-made barriers to help protect nearby water from becoming irradiated. Because of the design of the repository, the nuclear waste can remain there for up to three hundred years, or the waste can be removed should new technology be created to “provide a better disposal solution or a use for the nuclear materials” (Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management).


Yucca Mountain.
Yucca Mountain. (source)

The proposed site for the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Repository is to be built within the Yucca Mountain ridge in Nye County, Nevada. This site is approximately 80 miles northwest of Las Vegas. Yucca Mountain was formed by eruptions over time from a Caldera volcano, which is caused by land collapsing after a volcano eruption, thus creating a ridge or crater. The volcanic ash and rocks are believed to be a natural barrier to the radiation produced from the nuclear waste.

Opposition to this proposed site states that the hardened ash and rocks have fractures that allow surface water to seep into aquifers below the mountain. Due to these fractures, surface water could become irradiated from containment failure and seep into the aquifers below. Another issue that arises from the proposed Yucca Mountain Nuclear Repository site is the seismic activity around the area. According to the United States Geological Survey, Nevada ranks as the fourth most seismically active state with 778 Earthquakes in a 30-year period (1974-2003) ("Top Earthquake States"). There have also been about 621 earthquakes within a 50-mile radius of the repository site with a 2.5 magnitude or greater in a 30-year period (Attewill, Fred).

During some tests in 2005, scientists investigated some rock samples and found that directly under the nuclear waste repository was a fault line that was believed to be hundreds of feet away. Therefore, the engineers were forced to move the proposed build site of the concrete pads, which would store spent nuclear fuel, hundreds of feet away ("Yucca Mountain Fault Line"). These pads would serve as a place for the spent nuclear fuel to be cooled before it is sent into a “maze of tunnels inside the mountain” ("Yucca Mountain Fault Line").


The Yucca Mountain facility, although designed to be safe, could put thousands of families in harms way. If Yucca Mountain becomes the national radioactive waste repository for the United States, the waste will come streaming in from all points of the United States. The nation’s 104 nuclear reactors will have to send their waste from all corners of the nation to Nevada, where they can be stored (“Safely Managing Used Nuclear Fuel”). This will be an enormous amount of nuclear waste that will be crisscrossing the country every day and it will be passing through some areas of dense population.

Cask Transportation

Generic truck and rail spent fuel packages.
Generic truck and rail spent fuel packages. (source)

The primary mode of transportation for this waste will be on rail. It will be transported in spent nuclear fuel shipping casks. The casks are designed to comply with the International Atomic Energy Agency “Regulations for the Safe Transport of Radioactive Material.” Which states that these containers are designed to withstand extreme conditions that might result from a train derailment, such as exposure to heat at 800 degrees Celsius or immersion into deep water, but unfortunately these casks cannot be designed to withstand all conditions (“Transport of Radioactive Materials”). There are some possibilities that cannot be tested for and when dealing with the transportation of a substance as poisonous and destructive as radioactive nuclear waste, the thought can be chilling that it will be passing through and around heavily populated areas of the United States.

Title 10, Part 71.73, of the Code of Federal Regulations States:

  • A 9 meter (30 ft) free fall on to an unyielding surface.
  • A puncture test allowing the container to free-fall 1 meter (about 39 inches) onto a steel rod 15 centimeters (about 6 inches) in diameter.
  • A 30-minute, all-engulfing fire at 800 degrees Celsius (1475 degrees Fahrenheit).
  • An 8-hour immersion under 0.9 meter (3 ft) of water.
  • Further, an undamaged package must be subjected to a one-hour immersion under 200 meters (655 ft) of water.

(10 CFR 71.73 Hypothetical Accident Conditions)

Baltimore, Maryland

In July of 2001, a freight train carrying non-nuclear hazardous materials caught fire while passing through the Howard Street railroad tunnel in Baltimore, Maryland. The fire burned for 3 days with temperatures as high as 1000 degrees Celsius (“Spent Fuel Transportation”). The nuclear casks have only been tested for 800 Celsius at 30 minutes. This fire has called into question the potential for a nuclear cask to have its integrity compromised in such a fire.

Potential for Structural Compromise and Sabotage

The state of Nevada released a report titled “Implications of the Baltimore Rail Tunnel Fire for Full-Scale Testing of Shipping Casks.” This report examined what might happen to the nuclear casks had they been in the Howard Street railroad tunnel. It came to the conclusion that casks would have failed after less than 12 hours in the fire causing waste to leak out into the railroad tunnel. The report put the casualties at 4,000 to 28,000 over 50 years due to radiation poisoning. The fallout area would be 32 square miles and the clean up cost was estimated at $13.7 billion (Halstead, Robert J.).
In July of 2006, The Daily Mirror, a British newspaper, published a story about the potential lax in security for trains carrying nuclear waste. According to the newspaper a reporter exploited security lapses to come up upon train cars carrying nuclear waste and was able to plant a fake bomb (Parry, Tom). Such a bomb could be detonated at any large metropolitan area and potentially kill thousands of Americans.

This potential for subversion is why the transportation of nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain will be very dangerous. Right now, nuclear waste is transported very infrequently, but with the opening of Yucca Mountain, waste will be pouring in from every direction. It will be impossible for authorities to closely monitor every shipment like they can now, this will open up opportunities for a greater possibility of accidents and the likelihood for sabotage from criminals.

Environmental Impact

Since the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Repository was proposed to store nuclear waste, there are some environmental concerns with radiation. As noted in the recent events in Japan, radiation is a very big issue and concern for the public. Large enough amounts of radiation can kill humans either due to cancer or organ failure if radiation is large enough. Because of these concerns, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has set limits on the amount of radiation that the public, outside of the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository, can be exposed to.

“The disposal standards consisted of three components: an individual dose standard, a standard evaluating the impacts of human intrusion into the repository, and a ground-water protection standard” (Full Committee Oversight Hearing on the Status of the Yucca Mountain Project). In June of 2001, the EPA established the disposal standards for Yucca Mountain. Only 15 millirem (a measure of radiation) per year can be exposed to the individual standard and the human-intrusion standard. The EPA’s water standards will apply towards the amount of radiation in ground water in the facilities vicinity. These standards were created to apply to the nuclear waste facility for 10,000 years after it has closed.

However, there were challenges to the EPA’s decision to apply the above standards to the facility for only 10,000 years. In July of 2004, it was found that the EPA’s standards were inconsistent with the 1,000,000 years recommended by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) (Wehrum, "Hearings"). Due to this inconsistency, the Yucca Mountain standards were amended in 2009 to comply with the recommended time frame. The previous rule would still apply: a dose limit of 15 mrem for 10,000 years. However, after that time frame, a dose limit of 100 mrem will be established from 10,000 to 1,000,000 years in the future (Tetreault, "EPA Sets Yucca Radiation Standards").


What is to be done with the waste generated by reactors? This is a question with many different answers. Right now, almost all of the nuclear waste that is generated by reactors is stored on site or close by. It is stored in storage pools that contain boric acid to help absorb some of the radiation, but we are running out of space in these pools so we have put the waste into “dry” storage. This dry storage is in casks, similar to the ones that would be sent on rail around the country to Yucca Mountain. This dry storage is currently done on site at some reactors around the country. This is much safer than transporting the waste to Yucca Mountain (“Nuclear Waste Storage”). On site storage allows for the ability to keep a closer eye on the casks, monitor integrity, and provide greater security.

As of now science still has no answer for what to do to make the nuclear waste less dangerous. There is research in different areas to try and reduce the half-life of this nuclear waste. Accelerator-driven transmutation of waste is a method of reducing a substances half-life, but it is currently experimental and scientists believe it is ultimately not cost effective enough to deal with the countries abundance of waste (Koerner, Brendan I). Unfortunately, the best and most cost effective method of containment as of right now is to just place them in protected containers and wait. However, there has been research into alternative solutions, and some new methods have recently been proposed.


The United States currently employs an open nuclear fuel cycle, which means that spent nuclear fuel is not recycled or reprocessed. The fuel is only used once before being removed for storage. However, even after one use, 95% of the materials in the fuel still contains energy value. This material can be separated and used to create new fuel. Although reprocessing will not eliminate the byproducts of a nuclear power plant, it can reduce the volume and heat of nuclear waste (“Recycling Used Nuclear Fuel”).


Deep borehole concept.
Deep borehole concept. (source)

One of the solutions being proposed is the use of boreholes. Instead of storing waste in underground tunnels similar to Yucca Mountain, nuclear material could be stored in hundreds of boreholes spread over the United States. These boreholes would be created with technology already in use by the oil and gas industry. The holes would be about half a meter in diameter and 5 kilometers deep. Spent fuel is lowered into the hole, filling the bottom two kilometers. The hole is then sealed with clay, asphalt, and concrete.

Boreholes offer many advantages over an underground repository similar to Yucca Mountain:

Boreholes could be drilled anywhere where there is at least 3 kilometers of crystalline basement rock below ground. The majority of the U.S. meets this requirement.
Physical Barrier
Deep rock and geological features contain the waste. There is no need for canisters or protective shields
Safe Groundwater
Water found 2 kilometers or more below the surface is heavier than water near the surface, which causes this deep underground water to stay at depth. Studies have shown that water from basement rock has been stagnant for over hundreds of thousands of years. As a result, any irradiated water from a containment breach cannot contaminate groundwater (Phil 9).


Yucca Mountain was proposed as a nuclear waste repository as early as 1982. Since then, many advances in technology have occurred, and numerous concerns have also been raised about the location of the repository.

Advances in technology have lead to alternative solutions to nuclear waste disposal such as reprocessing and the use of boreholes. As technology advances, better solutions could be discovered and proposed. The amount of nuclear waste currently being temporarily stored at power plants is still considered to be relatively small. The need for a permanent repository is not immediate, which allows experts more time to come up with an better alternative solution. The nuclear waste in interim storage also becomes less radioactive with time, which will make it safer to transport when a permanent solution is found.

Many concerns have been raised over whether the location of the repository is truly safe. The most troubling of these concerns is seismic activity and fractures within the rock. Seismic activity could cause a containment breach, and fractures within the rock could result in groundwater being contaminated and irradiated.

Taking these factors into consideration, the conclusion can be reached that the Yucca Mountain location and facility is not the best solution for nuclear waste disposal. It would be in the United States’ best interest to find a more suitable location, use a safer method of disposal, or both.

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