The Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository

Jose Garcia
March 21, 2012

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2012

Nuclear Waste

Modern day technology has placed energy in high demand. Current dependence on exhaustible sources, such as fossil fuels, has led man to turn to the use of nuclear energy; a process that provides a high energy yield through fission but produces a radioactive byproduct. This high-level radioactive waste eventually decays into a safe material, but with half-lives that can be 24,000 years long; the waste must be stored or disposed of in the meantime. [1] Various methods have been proposed for dealing with this waste, ranging from firing the waste at the sun to storing it deep underground. The risks associated with firing a rocket full of toxic material into the atmosphere has ruled out the former; therefore, countries throughout the world have turned to the process of deep geological disposal. [2]

Deep Geological Disposal

To prevent radionuclides from harming the environment, high-level nuclear waste is usually stored in deep repositories within the earth's core. This method provides a multi-layered barrier consisting of the waste packaging, a constructed repository, and the geology of the location. The repositories at a depth of hundreds meters to kilometers beneath the site and are typically covered in bentonite to further buffer the waste from the environment. [2] When determining a location, factors such accessibility to drilling tools, stability of the rock, and isolation from groundwater sources must all be considered. Countries Including Sweden and Finland have adopted this method of disposal and have established such repositories. [2] In the United States, the search for a deep geological repository began in 1982 and was scheduled to be ready by 1998; however, long legal battles have delayed the process. [3] It was not until 2002 that the United States Energy Department recommended Yucca Mountain Nevada. [4]

Yucca Mountain

Yucca Mountain is a mountain ridge composed of volcanic rock in the Nevada Desert located approximately 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas. It has been the leading candidate in the search for a deep geological repository since the late 1980's thanks to the remoteness of the location and ability to insulate radioactive materials. The site was expected to house about 70,000 tons of highly radioactive nuclear waste while following a number of safety guidelines established by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). [5] These EPA standards included limiting the amount of radioactive leakage at the site to 15mrem/year for the first 10,000 years of storage, however these standards were found to be too lenient by the National Academy of Sciences, leading to additional limits to be set for the 1 million years following the initial 10,000 year period. [6] To comply with these standards, nuclear waste would be housed in corrosion resistant containers composed of a nickel based alloy. At the time of the repository's closure, approximately 100 years after waste would begin to be introduced, an additional "drip shield" made of titanium was to be placed over the containers to further contain the waste. [6]

Despite these plans, and billions of dollars invested into the project, delays caused by a long legal battle between the department of energy and the state of Nevada have prevented construction of a repository at Yucca Mountain.


In 2002 the DOE submitted its recommendation to the president of the United States for the construction of a deep geological repository at Yucca Mountain. Energy Secretary at the time, Spencer Abraham, cited the natural barriers of the mountain ridge and their ability to keep the public safe long into the future as reasons why the repository should be built in Yucca Mountain. [4] This location also seemed ideal since the Federal Government owned 87% of land in Nevada at the time. [5]

Consolidation of the country's nuclear waste at a single location was also a major driving force for the plan. As of 2011, 65,000 metric tons of nuclear waste are stored near nuclear reactors in 33 states, an amount that is expected to double by 2055. [7]

Additionally, the Department of energy had been under pressure for a number of years by commercial nuclear power plants. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act obligated the DOE to begin accepting and storing nuclear waste from these plants by 1998, however, this deadline had long passed and the United States Court of Appeals for the District for the Federal Circuit ruled that the owners of these plants were entitled to damages. Estimates for these damages exceed 50 billion dollars and the only way to avoid this burden on tax payers was to establish a repository for the country. [3]

Nevertheless, the plan was met with fierce opposition from those who felt the repository was poorly planned and contained many overlooked safety hazards.


After the recommendation of Yucca Mountain as the United States high-level nuclear waste repository, the DOE was met with large protest from the state of Nevada. Residents of Nevada wished to avoid having a large repository of toxic material installed in their state. Some also expressed concern over opening Nevada to more nuclear programs since the state served as a test site for the atomic bomb tests of the 1950's, which led to an increase to the rates of thyroid cancer in the state. [5]

However, the biggest concern was over the issue of transporting toxic waste to the site. At the time of the original Yucca Mountain proposal, Las Vegas was a relatively small city. Today, the city is home to over 1 million residents and over 30 million tourists each year. Transporting toxic waste on the highways surrounding the city now seemed like too high of a risk for many. Las Vegas would not be the only city affected either. Nuclear waste transported from cities throughout the country would have to cross other major cities, most notably buffalo, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Chicago would all see large amounts of nuclear waste pass through every year. If the waste were to be transported by train, Chicago would be the most affected, having 1/3 of all shipments pass through its metropolitan area. [5] In fact, transporting nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain would require up to six convoys of heavily guarded trucks every day for 24 years. [5] Opponents of the plan also raised concerns over the vulnerability of these transport vehicles to terrorist attacks, as well as the repository itself.

These concerns ultimately led to delays that have prevented the construction of a deep geological repository for nuclear waste in the United States.

Current State

The Bush administration had predicted that the Yucca Mountain repository would be operational by 2020. In 2008, Barrack Obama, an opponent of the Yucca Mountain plan, became president of the United States and began to slowly remove funding for the project. [8] The president expressed concerns over the health risks such a site would pose to Nevadans and millions of other Americans. By 2011 the federal budget had removed all funding for the Yucca Mountain project, effectively ending the endeavor. [7] Supported of the project have noted that ending the project would forfeit over 13 billion dollars that have already been invested in the site as well as delay the process of establishing a national repository by at least 20 years. [7] In the meantime, billions of taxpayer dollars will continue to be paid in damages to commercial power plants while efforts to find a national nuclear waste repository have been renewed. Current schedules expect a new repository will be functional by 2045. [7]

© Jose Garcia. 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] "Radioactive Waste," U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, April 2007.

[2] I. G. McKinley, W. R. Alexander and P. C. Blaser, "Development of Geological Disposal Concepts," Radioactivity in the Environment 9, 41 (2007).

[3] "Nuclear Waste: Technical, Schedule and Cost Uncertainties of the Yucca Mountain Repository Project," U. S. General Accounting Office, GOA-02-191, December 2001.

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

[5] R. Leung, "Yucca Mountain," CBS News, 11 Feb 09.

[6] L. J. Carter and T. J. Pigford, "Proof of Safety at Yucca Mountain," Science 310, 447 (2005).

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

[8] "Yucca Mountain Toxic Dump Project to be Scaled Back," Los Angeles Times, 26 Feb 09.