Should Yucca Mountain Hold More Than 77,000 Tons of Nuclear Waste, or None?

By Eliza Strickland | November 10, 2008 3:39 pm

Yucca Mountain tunnel 2The U.S. Department of Energy is lobbying to expand the controversial plan to store nuclear waste inside Nevada’s Yucca Mountain, even as the entire project’s fate is thrown into uncertainty with the election of Barack Obama as the nation’s next president. The locally unpopular project has been repeatedly delayed due to lawsuits and safety concerns (the federal government originally promised to start accepting waste from nuclear power companies in 1998, but is now scheduled to open in 2020), and Obama has previously signaled that he might scrap the facility all together.

Yet recent statements by the Energy Department’s Edward Sproat underscored the urgency of finding some safe, final destination for the United States’ growing piles of nuclear waste. Sproat told Congress last week that the 77,000-ton limit Congress put on the capacity of the proposed Yucca waste dump will fall far short of what will be needed and has to be expanded, or another dump built elsewhere in the country…. He said within two years the amount of waste produced by the country’s 104 nuclear power plants plus defense waste will exceed 77,000 tons [AP]. Sproat suggested that Congress scrap the limit, or else empower the Department of Energy to search for another site for a secondary facility.

However, the incoming Obama Administration is not expected to take a friendly stance towards the current Yucca Mountain repository, let alone to embrace an expanded facility. In a 2007 letter to Nevada Senator Harry Reid, a staunch opponent of the project, Obama agreed that the Yucca Mountain facility was not a workable option. “In short, the selection of Yucca Mountain has failed, the time for debate on the site is over and it is time to start exploring new alternatives for safe, long-term solutions based on sound science,” Obama wrote [Las Vegas Review-Journal], although he did not suggest what those alternatives might be.

One expert says that expanding the Yucca Mountain repository might not be possible while maintaining safety standards. Geologist Allison Macfarlane, who has studied the Yucca Mountain area, said there are clear limits to Yucca expansion because of nearby earthquake fault lines and potential volcanic activity. “There are geological constraints on Yucca Mountain. It is not an endless sink for nuclear waste,” said Macfarlane [AP]. Macfarlane also acknowledged that decisions about where to store radioactive waste are driven as much by politics as by science, and she suggested that adding additional facilities in other states might reduce the opposition in Nevada.

Related Content:
80beats: EPA Sets Radiation Limit for Nevadans Living 1 Million Years From Now
80beats: So Much Radioactive Waste, So Little Time
DISCOVER: Welcome to Yucca Mountain tells the full story on how the storage facility was deemed an acceptable risk

Image: Department of Energy

  • Per Peterson

    The NRC review of the DOE Yucca Mountain license application involves an independent scientific and technical appraisal to determine whether the application demonstrates compliance with the million-year EPA safety standard.

    It would be extraordinarily disappointing, and invite lawsuits, if the Obama administration uses executive branch authority to terminate this scientific review, particularly in a case where there would be a clear perception that withdrawing the application is a political payoff to supporters during the primary election.

    The DOE license application shows very large margins for compliance with the million-year EPA standard. The problem is not with the capability of the repository to comply with the safety standard, but instead is with our policy for how and when to use this repository.

    Rather than using executive branch authority to terminate the NRC license review, what we really need is the political leadership to craft a major revision to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act that would establish a long-term national policy to recycle rather than dispose spent fuel, limit the use of Yucca Mountain to defense high level wastes and materials that have high heat generation or conceivable long-term economic value, authorize construction of a repository next to the WIPP facility in New Mexico for residual, low-heat-rate wastes from civil reprocessing that are known to have no conceivable long-term economic value, and provide substantial economic compensation to affected communities.

  • caveman

    We don’t need such a storage facility. Follow the example Pres. Bush and company set and keep the “Industrial Military Complex” moving forward and we can just keep dumping our depleted uranium(Bunker busters, ect…) on countries and people that don’t goose-step with us.

  • Jim Baird

    In its November 2, 2008 editorial, “Gone Missing” the New York Times states, “Ever since Sept. 11, 2001, the world has shuddered at the possibility of loose nuclear weapons or radioactive material falling into the hands of terrorists. Shuddered and done too little to stop it.”

    The only way America can ensure nuclear material does not fall into unwanted hands is to secure the global inventory of this material on its own soil. The heat from this amount of spent fuel would approximate twice the energy capacity of currently operating U.S. reactors. A triple multiplier would result if this heat was used to produce oil from the Green River oil shale formation.

    Seventy percent more oil could be produced using the same quantity of energy to produce Alberta’s oil sands.

    Placing nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain would be throwing away the energy capacity of half of America’s operating reactors.

  • John Paul Ryan

    From my personal professional experience working at the Savannah River Laboratory in the 1980’s as a Research Chemist modeling, monitoring and assessing the radiological risk of nuclear waste disposal, I would have no concern about working at or living near the Yucca Mountain repository. Rather, if I lived there I would be trying hard to attract the disposal and future reprocessing industry as a potential long term revenue generator for the region. The material we now call waste will eventually be an extremely valuable energy resource.

    What doesn’t seem to be widely appreciated is that the material in the fuel rods can’t fly, and that plutonium and other actinides are incredibly insoluble in water, so they won’t go anywhere, even if they do get wet. In fact, a surprisingly small clay layer is sufficient to immobilize even the much more mobile and short lived gamma and beta emitting isotopes for their entire radioactive lifetimes. So unless there is a river running right through the repository, or a volcano coming right up through it, the nuclear material isn’t going anywhere. Long-lived nuclear materials are so chemically inert in their fuel rod form that even if a truck of current design were blown up with a good sized bomb, it is highly debatable whether a significant dose could be delivered to any person in the neighborhood that hadn’t already been directly injured in the blast.

    The chemistry is not the problem, nor is the long-lived radioactivity. It is really a matter of politics, and fear. The waste disposal “problem” is being used as an argument to block nuclear power.

    In this age of terrorism, fear of nuclear power is not a totally irrational argument. But it’s silly to argue that the nuclear fuel rods are safer scattered in water baths all over the country than in secure repositories.

  • Brian

    Well… we can argue about expansion, I suppose. I remember being struck several years ago about the relatively short projected lifetime of the Yucca Mountain site.

    However this misses a bigger reality I think. There still isn’t, after decades of talking about it, a permanent nuclear waste disposal facility. Not in North America anyway. This needs to change.

    Lately the nuclear industry is trying to change it’s image and has been advertising. “No carbon emissions here”–“we’re safer than coal”–“no one has ever been killed by nuclear”. The strategy seems to be (1) Avoid talking about sites outside of North America; (2) Fail to point out that cancer cases can almost NEVER be conclusively tied to any specific spill or site; (3) There’s no permanant waste disposal site.

    Open Yucca Mountain and start using it. At least the nuclear industry can start to address decades of waste buildup. It will also start to build a track record of responsibly (we hope) disposing of the dangerous byproducts of nuclear power.

    Nuclear power might be a big part of our future. It’s time to get the waste disposal monkey off our backs.

  • Richard Davis

    The operators of nclear powered electric generation sites have already paid for their share of the Yucca Mountain repository. I guess those funds are in yet another “lock-box” somewhere in the District of Columbia.
    If the Nevada electorate, or their representatives, chooses blind and irrational fear of something they cannot understand, then let them return the economic value they received in the construction of the Yucca site.
    The French people obtain over 75% of their electric energy from Nuclear power. It does not go dark when the sun isn’t shining or the wind blowing. And, they don’t have to build enormous electric grids to transmit the power. And, the French are not concerned aobut how to warehouse electrical power, in any form.
    Or elected officials, already experts in the arcane structure of the financial empires, are surely up to the task of understanding nuclear decay, storage methodology, solubility, the myriad of scientific concerns that must be addressed to allay the unfounded fears of the multitude of GED equivalency folks who perpetuate their power. They have an almost 20% approval rating.

  • Pro-Yucca Nevadan

    The authors of this article should read the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA) for some context in which to situate their interpretation of Director Sproat’s remarks.

    The NWPA has always envisioned the need for a second repository. In fact, Section 161 of the NWPA explicitly requires that DOE report to Congress by 2010 on this subject. Given that the licensing process for Yucca Mountain (the proposed site of the first repository) will extend beyond 2010, and that the planned repository will exceed its statutory capacity long before a first repository is built, Sproat is merely reminding us (a) of the urgent need for a national repository, and (b) that we have already reached the point where we need a second repository (i.e., so why the hold-up on the first?). All Sproat is trying to accomplish, in other words, is his statutory obligation under the NWPA: to report to Congress on the need for a second repository. The option of expanding the capacity at Yucca Mountain would delay this need, but none of this should be construed as DOE signalling an interest in “looking elsewhere” for a first repository, or shifting to a strategy other than deep geologic burial of nuclear waste.

    Finally, it should be noted that Allison Macfarlane, apart from representing a minority view among her peers, also represents only one of many disciplines required for making the safety case for Yucca Mountain. No single member of any discipline, or even any single discipline, is equipped to pass judgement on a project that requires geologists, geochemists, engineers, hydrologists, metallurgists, chemists, nuclear scientists, regulatory experts, and so on.

  • Denitsa

    A mountain loaded with nuclear waste…I wonder what Hollywood will make out of this. It’s so suitable for a movie.
    As for the decision whether to use it or not, if they don’t store the waste there, they’ll store them somewhere else. That’s the sad true. That’s why, I think it’s more or less the same whether they say no or yes. The more important thing is to work on nuclear technology, if possible on fusion, so that that decision will be the last one from this kind.

  • Chris Skinner

    I get so tired of all the ignorant “environmental quacks” out there who pretend to be a “know-it-all” authority on issues they know nothing about.Their backwards logic based upon fear and hysteria is that “THE PROBLEM IS BETTER THAN THE SOLUTION !”

    As for myself,I’m a moderate who is frustrated and fed-up with all the nutty,ignorant politics of both the radical left-wing extremist liberals and the radical right-wing extremist conservatives.They all need to grow-up and get some brains and a life.

    First,we have a right-wing extremist George W. Bush for the status-quo who allows the wealthy to exploit the economy into the ground for the past 8 years.Next,we have the ultra-liberal African American version of a Jimmy Carter circus bozo come along and tell us Yucca Mountain is not an acceptable option….without specifying what other option for nuclear waste there might be as a viable alternative.

    I’m all for alternatives like solar,biomass and wind,too.But how is putting solar collectors on your roof going to get rid of the nuclear waste that already exists? These people are not even being sensible.

    This nutty idea of letting it pile-up in pools all over the country is a disaster just waiting to happen.Of course,this is exactly what the irrational “environmental quacks” and nuts want to happen….so they can say:”I told you so!”

  • Chris Skinner

    I get so tired of all the ignorant “environmental quacks” out there who pretend to be a “know-it-all” authority on issues they know nothing about.Their backwards logic based upon fear and hysteria is that “THE PROBLEM IS BETTER THAN THE SOLUTION”.As for myself,I’m a moderate who is frustrated with all the nutty,ignorant politics of both the radical left-wing extremist liberals and the radical right-wing extremist conservatives.First,we have a right-wing extremist George W. Bush for the status-quo who allows the wealthy to exploit the economy into the ground for the past 8 years.Next,we have the ultra-liberal version of an African American Jimmy Carter circus bozo come along and tell us Yucca Mountain is not an acceptable option….without specifying what other option for nuclear waste might be a viable alternative.This nutty idea of letting it pile-up in pools all over the country is a disaster just waiting to happen.Of course,this is exactly what the irrational “environmental quacks” and nuts want….so they can say:”I told you so!”

  • Species

    So… What is the solution ??? Anyone, Anyone at all?

    So at least we have a solution from Bush. It may not be the best, brightest, whatever, but at least we have one.

    That’s all we’ve been hearing from Obama. “What Bush has told you isn’t the answer, But I have the answer!”

    I’m still waiting for the answer.

  • Robert Steinhaus

    When it comes to Nuclear Waste, it is better to just make less of it

    Every year America’s 104 Light Water Reactors generate another 2000 tons of high level nuclear waste all of which currently must be sent to repository storage. Yucca Mountain, the nation’s current designated long term nuclear repository, will technically be “full” in accord with statutory limitation sometime during 2010. It will be very politically difficult to locate a new long term repository site anywhere in the US.

    We should Transition to Nuclear Technology that makes less Waste.

    DOE Lab Scientists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory have pioneered a less costly and less waste generating nuclear technology that has been thoroughly proven in the laboratory but has never been commercialized.

    Nuclear power currently produces 70% of the nation’s non-GHG producing energy. Thorium Molten Salt Reactors are practical proven technology that really does produce 1 part in 1000 the amount of high level radiotoxic waste [1] as current Light Water Reactor technology. We need to commercialize Thorium Molten Salt Reactors to provide America with abundant clean nuclear power and achieve genuine energy independence.

    Using Thorium Molten Salt Reactors (TMSR) as backup systems to our renewable energy systems will greatly improve the satisfaction of Americans with the completed energy system. People will not be happy with an energy system that has greater brownouts, blackouts, or intermittency than the fossil fuel based power system they are used to. Thorium Molten Salt Reactors can easily and safely be throttled in power output unlike conventional nuclear technology which is well adapted to constant power operation. TMSR reactors can safely and easily change power output and are excellent load following and peak generating power sources. Conventional LWR operate better when set and then operated at a constant power level for an extended period of time. Backing-up with Thorium Nuclear will keep the quality and customer satisfaction with the overall completed energy system high.

    Thorium Molten Salt Reactors are not “crank” science. Dr. Edward Teller, the founding director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, wrote his final paper a month before his death on the subject of the advantages of Thorium Molten Salt Reactors and the contribution this style of less polluting nuclear energy could provide in solving the problem of achieving energy independence while reducing the need to generate green house gases. This paper can be downloaded from the following URL:

    Respectfully, Robert Steinhaus – Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (Retired)

    [1] Revisiting the thorium-uranium nuclear fuel cycle, © European Physical Society, EDP Sciences 2007.
    This article can be downloaded from

    Note: For a cost of approximately one tenth the projected 2010 budget of NASA per year for five years the US could have Oak Ridge National Laboratory and an industrial partner prepare plans for a commercial 1000 MW Thorium Molten Salt Reactor that would, in the future, greatly reduce the amount of toxic high level waste that would have to be placed in the Yucca Mountain Repository. Approximately 1.8 billion dollars a year for five years could fund a complete NRC certifiable approved reactor design that could be quickly adopted and built by utilities wanting to provide improved nuclear power. Ongoing design efforts at the Laboratoire de Physique Subatomique et de Cosmologie in Grenoble, France and in Japan are underway to produce new, updated, Thorium Molten Salt Reactor designs. It might be possible to bootstrap design efforts by joining with the French and Japanese on a combined, updated, NRC reviewable commercial TMSR reactor design and share the costs of development.

  • Jack Jensen

    Evidently none of the above commenters or even President Obama or members of Congress have read,
    ” Going Nuclear A memo to John McCain” By William Tucker written on October 15, 2008.
    If they had I would think that the matter of Yucca would have already been settled in their minds. It’s a non-starter!
    I quote:
    “Now how about that matter of “nuclear waste?” Once again it pays to know what you’re talking about. Basically, there is no such thing as “nuclear waste.” It’s not like you’re burning coal ­ where you end up with gargantuan amounts of something you can’t use, like carbon dioxide. Nearly all the material in a spent fuel rod is recyclable or easily handled. Ninety-five percent of a spent fuel rod is U-238 ­ the same natural uranium that comes out of the ground. We could just put it back where it came from. The other 5 percent is fissionable U-235 (1 percent), various “fission products” from the breakdown of U-235 (2 percent), plus a group called the “minor actinides” which are formed when U-238 is transmuted into heavier, man-made elements (2 percent). Among the minor actinides is plutonium (1 percent), one of whose isotopes can be used for making bombs.”

    “So why do we need Yucca Mountain, a huge repository designed to “bury” 77,000 tons of “nuclear waste,” when 95 percent of the material is non-fissioning natural uranium? We’re doing it because in 1976, President Jimmy Carter ­ a President many people feel Barack Obama may eventually resemble ­ got cold feet and outlawed the reprocessing of spent fuel. Instead of treating it in an environmentally efficient way and recycling, we ended up with huge, mixed-up gobs of material that we can’t think of anything to do with except “throw it away.”

    “Almost everything in a spent fuel rod can be recycled. The U-235 can be used again for fuel. So can the plutonium. Among the fission products and minor actinides there are lots of useful isotopes used in medicine and industrial procedures. Forty percent of all medical procedures now involve some radioactive isotope and nuclear medicine is a $250-billion industry. Unfortunately, we must now import all our medical isotopes from Canada because ours are all being treated as “nuclear waste.”

    “The French have complete recycling. (I know you talk about France’s nuclear power a lot but I doubt you know this.) They take plutonium from spent fuel, mix it with uranium depleted by enrichment, and call it “mixed oxide fuel.” It’s sold all over Europe and Japan. They’re also importing bomb-grade uranium from old Russian nuclear weapons, mixing it with the tailings from uranium mines (another “waste product”) and shipping it to the United States of America as reactor fuel. It’s a treaty engineered by your old colleagues Senators Pete Domenici and Sam Nunn in the 1990s. One out of every ten light bulbs in America is now being lit by a former Soviet weapon! It’s the greatest swords-into-plowshares effort in history ­ although very few people know about it. Things nuclear, of course, are not the subject of polite conversation.”

    “So what’s left when all this reprocessing is done? Essentially nothing. All of France’s nuclear waste from 25 years of producing 75 percent of its electricity is stored beneath the floor of one room at Le Hague. The lifetime output for each French citizen would fit in a soda can. That’s what the incredible energy density of nuclear power can do for the environment.”

    “Want to hear one more irony? The reason we gave up reprocessing in the 1970s was because we thought we were stopping nuclear proliferation. The idea had gotten around that terrorists or somebody from another country would steal plutonium from an American reactor and use it to make a bomb. As it turns out, proliferation has not taken this route. Countries that wanted nuclear weapons ­ China, India, Pakistan, North Korea, Iran, Israel and South Africa ­ have built their own reactors or smuggled material from friendly countries.”

    “But that’s not the real irony. The most preposterous thing is you can’t build a bomb from the plutonium in a commercial reactor. You have to build a special reactor for making only bomb material. (That’s what the Russians were doing at Chernobyl.) The reason is this. There are four plutonium isotopes produced in a commercial reactor. Only one of them ­ Pu-239 ­ can be used to make a bomb. The others are too fissionable or not fissionable enough. They “poison” the chain reaction by going off too slowly or too quickly. At best you can get a bomb maybe big enough to blow up a single building. (The terrorists have already figured out how to do this with airplanes.) In order to separate the plutonium isotopes, you’d have to build an enrichment plant far more complicated than the ones used to enrich uranium. Nobody has ever done it. So plutonium from our reactors is essentially useless, except for producing more electricity.”

    Nuclear experts knew this all along but nobody ever listens to them. In fact, this whole country is filled with nuclear engineers and scientists who know that nuclear power is the greatest gift ever bestowed on humanity but most of them have quit trying to make their case. Instead, the discussion is dominated by the Ralph Naders and Robert Redfords and Sierra Club tyros who basically don’t know what they’re talking about.

    Another piece written by Mr. Tucker and published in the most recent issue of National Review titled:
    “Lo a Smart Grid” states in the last paragraph, ” The most remarkable aspect of this solution is that it wouldn’t require a new grid. Without the need to import electricity from North Dakota or the Mojave Desert, the present system would work just fine. In fact, electricity generation could become very local indeed, because while renewables have been getting bigger, nuclear has been getting smaller: Hyperion Power Generation, Inc., a New Mexico company, just introduced a reactor the size of a gazebo that can power 20,000 average-size homes.’ see

    Who would have thought nuclear would be small and green?

  • gary troyer

    Sorry, but you can build a nuclear weapon from reactor grade Pu. Most of what you said is true, it’s just more difficult to control and is limited in yield. About the best that can be built is comparable to Hiroshima/Nagasaki devices, about 20kT. In 1969, the US successfully tested such a device underground. This resulted in changing classification types to weapons, fuel, and reactor grade Pu.

    Having said that, it should still not be a reason for proceeding with nuclear fuel reprocessing in a closed system. The genie is out of the bottle. We need to embrace, educate, and cooperated for power production in a safely managed manner. It’s the only solution. Bring everyone up, don’t restrict or push the have nots down. Use fast reactors to recycle and burnup the Pu, fission products and actinides. Expectation: abundant long term power and minimal waste.

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