The Fate of Yucca Mountain

Clara Druzgalski
March 22, 2012

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2012

The Search for a Permanent Solution

Before the first commercial nuclear power plant in the United States had even begun producing energy, scientists were already debating the question of what to do with the resulting nuclear waste. The United States Energy Act of 1954 placed the responsibility of radioactive waste disposal on the Atomic Energy Commission, and more than fifty years later the United States is still far from finding a permanent solution. Even as early as 1957, scientists were conscious that the dilemma of nuclear waste storage was unlike any other dilemma faced by mankind. In a report issued June 25, 1957 the Committee on Disposal and Dispersal of Radioactive Wastes stated, "We are presented with the problem of controlling the dangerous products of fission for periods of time measured in terms of many hundreds of years, periods longer then the effective tenure of any political state in history. We must not only devise ways of protecting ourselves in the present and for our lifetime but... for at least ten to twenty lifetimes." [1]

In 1958 the first commercial nuclear power plant in the United States began producing energy, since then, a total of 259 commercial nuclear power units have been ordered over the lifetime of the nuclear industry in the United States. [2] The question of what to do with the nuclear waste from these facilities remains unresolved with more than 65,000 metric tons of spent fuel stored near reactors in 33 states. [3]

In an attempt to resolve the issue of nuclear waste storage, the government started searching for a repository site in the 1960s. [4] In 1987 Congress picked Yucca Mountain as a potential nuclear waste repository and was quickly sued by the state of Nevada. [5] Despite Nevada's attempts of blocking the project, the site continued to be studied. In 2002 the Department of Energy recommended that Yucca Mountain be designated as the main nuclear waste repository in the United States on the basis that the geographic location, natural barriers, and design of the proposed facility was a unique combination that would ensure safe storage. [4]

The Controversy

Nevada residents were outraged in 1987 when congress designated Yucca Mountain as a nuclear waste repository without the consent of the state. Since then Nevada has opposed the project through lawsuits, as well as through the actions of Senator Harry Reid who has aggressively battled the plan and questioned the validity of the science behind the assertions that the storage site was safe. Opponents of the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Repository became a national issue when they protested that shipment of nuclear waste around the country would be too dangerous and could put lives at risk. The unpopularity of the plan has led the Obama administration to withdraw funding for the program. However, the administration has also been criticized that this decision was not based on any technical or scientific concerns, but rather because of political pressure. Supporters of the plan counter that closure of the project would set the United States back at least 20 years in the opening of another geological repository, $12 billion dollars already spent on Yucca Mountain would be wasted, and billions more dollars would be needed in the research and development of another waste repository. [3]

The Future of Yucca Mountain

The future of Yucca Mountain appears to be one of legal battles, political theatre, and public disapproval. From the moment that congress declared Nevada as the main nuclear waste repository of the United States without input from the state itself, is the moment that Yucca Mountain was fated to become a public relations nightmare. While Yucca Mountain may end up being an expensive lesson in the importance of community consent, it is crucial to point out that another nuclear waste repository has been operating in the US with little controversy and, correspondingly, less press coverage. The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant located in Carlsbad, New Mexico has received more than 60,000 cubic meters of waste since 1999. According to U.S. News & World Report, the crucial difference between Yucca Mountain and the Carlsbad repository is that the local population pushed the idea from the start, and embraced it as a way to ensure the economic viability of their community. Other examples of successful repositories in countries such as Sweden have also shown the importance of local support in the decision making process. [5] It appears that the only hope for Yucca Mountain to become a nuclear waste storage site is one in which a grassroots effort, driven by economic incentives, show support for the plan. However, the original insult of leaving the community out of the decision making process may take many years to heal.

Further information about Yucca Mountain and waste disposal generally may be found other PH241 reports. [6-9]

© Clara Druzgalski. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] F. L. Culler, Jr. and S. McLain, eds., "Status Report on the Disposal of Radioactive Wastes," Oak Ridge National Laboratory, 57-3-114, June 1957.

[2] "Annual Energy Review 2010," U.S. Energy Information Administration, DOE/EIA-0384(2010), October 2011.

[3] H. Northey, "GAO: Death of Yucca Mountain Caused by Political Maneuvering," New York Times, 10 May 11.

[4] M. L. Wald, "Energy Dept. Recommends Yucca Mountain for Nuclear Burial," New York Times, 15 Feb 02.

[5] K. Garber, "Lessons from the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Storage Debate," U.S. News and World Report, 16 Mar 09.

[6] J. Garcia, "The Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository," PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2012.

[7] S. Ali, "Nuclear Waste Disposal Methods," Ph241, Stanford University, Winder 2011.

[8] B. Madres, "Storage and 'Disposal' of Nuclear Waste," PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2011.

[9] A. Sharif, "Spent Nuclear Fuel in the US, France and Finland," PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2011.