News in Depth: Returning to Yucca Mountain

Recently, Ken Ritter of the Houston Chronicle reported on the renewed debate over the proposed nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. The Yucca mountain story stretches back decades, and Ritter’s report highlights many of the points of friction which continue to delay the project. In this week’s News in Depth, we’ll take a look at this report and the story of the proposed Yucca Mountain repository.

Background: The Yucca Mountain Story

Yucca Mountain was officially selected to be the national repository for spent-fuel and high-level radioactive waste in 2002. President George W. Bush approved the site choice, but the governor of Nevada, Kenny Guinn, then vetoed the decision. That veto was subsequently overturned by Congress.

In 2008, the US Department of Energy submitted a license application for the Yucca Mountain site. The initial plan called for a facility that could hold upwards of 77,000 tons of waste for up to 1 million years.

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However, in 2011, the Obama administration cut funding for the project and, effectively, left the U.S. without a long-term storage plan for civilian nuclear waste. In response to the Obama administrations cancellation of the project, a handful of U.S. states and organizations “filed suit in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit asking for a writ of mandamus requiring the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to restart licensing proceeding for Yucca Mountain.” The court granted their request, and as a result the NRC restarted the review process for the DOE’s original application.

In 2014, the NRC approved the final part of the DOE proposal. As Eli Kintisch reported at the time on the Science Insider blog,

The 781-page report concludes that the proposed site… includes “multiple barriers to isolate radioactivity from the environment” for hundreds of thousands of years, commission staff said in a statement. That should allow it to comply with standards to protect ground water and people in the distant future.

Today, the debate continues over the Yucca Mountain site. While the initial environmental assessment has largely been completed, questions still remain as to land ownership over the site and other environmental, social, and political issues. To add to the difficulty of the situation, a federal appeals court ruled two years ago now that the NRC has to either approve or reject the license application.  The process for the approval will likely take years.

The Debate Today

Ken Ritter’s recent report expands on many of the key issues related to the project. For the people quoted in the piece, the biggest issue is perhaps that of ground-water contamination. As one opponent to the project put it:

The only question to be answered is, ‘Can waste emplaced in Yucca Mountain be isolated and not contaminate groundwater?'” said Judy Treichel, an opponent since the 1980s of the project who heads an entity called the Nevada Nuclear Waste Task Force. “The answer is, ‘No.'”

However, at the article points out, “a report released in August by the NRC acknowledged a small chance of contamination, but said someone drinking two liters of groundwater a day would still not accumulate as much radiation as they do from natural and background sources.”

Overall, it seems that the fear of radiation, no matter how small of a projected risk, is fueling much of the debate. In addition, opponents highlight the logistics of transportation, construction, and maintenance, arguing that the costs are far too high.

As a 2014 New York Times piece by Matthew Wald put it, Yucca Mountain “was never described as the best place for burying nuclear waste, only an acceptable one about which a consensus could be achieved.” Is this a case of politics trumping science, as some critics argue? If we are to believe that, does it not discount the research and regulatory study that has gone in to the project? 

One potential way to reset the conversation is to think about the alternatives. If Yucca Mountain is scrapped, what’s next? This isn’t to say that alternatives should not be considered, or that the current site’s momentum is a rationale for its continued front-runner status. Rather, it’s a question of thinking about asking what is truly realistic. On balance, do the negatives outweighs the positives? And in either case, what are the next steps? Those are the questions worth answering.