atw 2018-05v6


atw Vol. 63 (2018) | Issue 5 ı May



Yucca Mountain: Can the US Finally End

the $12 Billion Impasse?


A US federal advisory panel recently took a step in what could be a lengthy process to determine if

a deep geological nuclear waste repository should finally be built at Yucca Mountain, a project that has been

on the drawing board since the 1970s at a cost of around $ 12 bn (€ 9.7 bn).

The panel held a meeting to receive input on

reconstructing an electronic library for

documents needed to decide on the US Department of

Energy’s (DOE) Yucca licence application. The meeting, at

the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s headquarters in

Maryland, came one week after another development: the

White House pledged $ 120 m of funding in its 2019 federal

budget proposal to restart licensing for the Yucca site, north

of Las Vegas in Nevada, and to establish an interim storage

programme to address the growing stockpile of nuclear

waste produced by nuclear plants across the nation.

The panel meeting, and Donald Trump’s budget proposal,

came despite a lack of federal funding for the Yucca

project and repeated vows by Nevada officials to fight the


In the scheme of things, neither development is likely to

result in any significant short-term progress on Yucca. But

they do mark something of a revival. After decades of

wrangling, could the US finally be on course to resolve the

question of what to do with the high-level nuclear waste

from the nation’s 99 commercial nuclear reactors?

Yucca Mountain’s history is complex, and riven by party

politics and state antipathy. According to the National Conference

of State Legislatures (NCSL), the story of Yucca

Mountain is a cautionary tale about what can happen

when the federal government imposes its will on a state

without its cooperation or consent.

The site was designated by Congress in 1987 as the sole

site to permanently store nuclear waste, but the licensing

process was halted when the Obama administration ended

funding in 2010.

There was, and continues to be, significant support for

using Yucca Mountain to store nuclear waste. Support

comes especially from states housing some of the waste

and from small communities near the site hungry for

new jobs. The state of Texas – home to the Comanche Peak

and South Texas nuclear stations – sued several federal

agencies claiming the federal government had violated the

Nuclear Waste Policy Act by failing to complete the licensing

process at Yucca Mountain. The Act codifies the DOE’s

responsibility for developing a geologic repository for used

nuclear fuel.

There is also substantial resistance. Generally speaking,

Nevadans don’t want nuclear waste stored at Yucca

Mountain and they never have. Surveys show that around

58 % oppose and 33 % support full development of the

repository, according to the Nevada Independent. Governor

Brian Sandoval, a Republican, responded to the renewed

federal interest in Yucca by warning that “any attempt to

resurrect this ill-conceived project will be met with

relentless opposition, and maximum resources”. Democrat

Aaron Ford was equally as strident. He said: “I am

disappointed that the Trump administration is arrogantly

choosing to ignore the fact that Nevadans don’t want

dangerous nuclear waste dumped on our state.”

But the waste has to go somewhere. There is consensus

on one inescapable fact: tonnes of nuclear waste need a

permanent home, and more is coming. Nuclear reactors

have generated more than 76,000 tonnes of nuclear waste

since they first began producing electricity in the late

1950s. That’s the equivalent of a football field covered

almost 10 metres deep in spent nuclear fuel, according to

the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), a Washington-based

industry group. And every year the US generates between

2,000 and 2,300 tonnes more, primarily from commercial

nuclear reactors.

The US has been seeking a solution to nuclear waste for

decades. With 99 reactors in 30 states producing almost

20 % of the nation’s electricity, concern is building.

Without a central facility to send the high-level radioactive

waste to, energy generators have been storing it on site in

steel canisters, in concrete-lined pools of water or in dry


The NEI sums up the industry’s view, saying the DOE

shut down the Yucca Mountain project without citing any

technical or safety issues. In contrast, decades of scientific

study had “consistently concluded that the proposed

repository could safely protect future generations”.

The NEI says that at the time of the shutdown, in 2010,

$ 12 bn had already been spent on Yucca Mountain and

65,000 tonnes of spent fuel were in temporary storage

across 33 states. In 2014, a federal court ordered the NRC

to complete safety and environmental reviews of the site.

However, while these reviews have since concluded that

Yucca Mountain complies with all regulations, a final

decision awaits an extensive formal hearing. “That hearing

can’t happen until Congress funds it,” said the NEI.

How Did We Get Here?

The Nuclear Waste Policy Act established a national

programme for the safe and permanent disposal of spent

nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste. It included a

small fee utilities passed on to consumers to help pay for it

all. In 1987, Congress designated Yucca Mountain to be the

Inside Nuclear with NucNet

Yucca Mountain: Can the US Finally End the $12 Billion Impasse? ı NucNet

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