Yucca Mountain: A Case-Study in Political Treatment of Nuclear Waste

Bryan Li
February 19, 2016

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2016


Fig. 1: Yucca Mountain. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The long-term storage of nuclear waste is a hot-button issue that is continually at debate today. One prominent example of this can be seen in the controversy surrounding Yucca Mountain as a waste repository. Under the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act, the federal government pledged to find a permanent solution of both military and civilian nuclear waste. [1] In 1987, the sole candidate for waste storage was found to be Yucca Mountain, sparking resistance and backlash from Nevadans and Americans alike. [2] Since then, the controversy has yet to die down, with Yucca Mountain formally ruled out as a storage site in 2010 by the DOE. [2]

Harry Reid: The Voice of Opposition

Democratic Nevada Senator Harry Reid, a longstanding enemy of Yucca Mountain, was a major contributor to the demise of the Yucca Valley plan. Reid tirelessly worked against the Yucca Mountain plan, even referring to the 1987 amendments to the NWPA the "Screw Nevada Bill". [3] In 2003, Reid (then Senate Minority Whip) requested that one of his staffers, Gregory Jaczko be appointed to a position on the Nuclear Regulatory Committee (NRC). [4] This proposal was initially refused by the White House to avoid placing a clearly anti- Yucca presence on the NRC. [4] In response, Reid refused to validate President Bush's executive branch nominations until Jaczko was appointed. [4] In 2006, Reid became the Senate Majority Leader, providing him with the resources to greatly alter the course of the Yucca Mountain proposal. His developing political clout led to Democrats taking a unified stance against Yucca in time for Nevada's Democratic presidential primary in January 2008. [3] Frontrunners at the time, Sen. Hilary Rodham Clinton and then Sen. Obama, noticing the trend against Yucca, began pushing for the closure of Yucca Mountain. [3]

Current and Future Status

Both the then Secretary of Energy Steven Chu and President Obama have stated that Yucca Mountain is not a viable long-term option for nuclear waste storage. [5] In agreement with these views, President Obama halted progress on the Yucca Mountain depository in 2010 and eliminated all funding for the Yucca Mountain project in 2011. [5] In 2012, Congress as a whole was unable to pass any funding for the program, leading to the DOE completely shutting down the Yucca Mountain facility. [5] The House of Representatives passed a bill to restore funding to the process but was rejected by the senate. [5] The chairman of the NRC, the previously mentioned Gregory Jaczko, has become a subject of controversy for his repeated actions to shut down any project relating to Yucca Mountain. [5]

Within the House of Representatives, many leading Republicans, such as then Speaker of the House John Boehner, have voiced opposition to the shutdown of Yucca Mountain, which may unfold legally in the future through the political process. [5] According to Boehner, "[w]e've invested tens of billions of dollars in a storage facility that's as safe as anything we're going to find." [5] As a result, it is likely that the Yucca Mountain dispute will continue to unfold within the legal circuit in the form of hearings, disputes and investigations involving the NRC. [5]


In 2010, when Obama halted the progression of Yucca Mountain by removing all funding, federal officials suspended a safety study on Yucca Mountain being conducted by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. [6] The lengthy 781-page study concludes that the Yucca Mountain site would effectively be able to limit the amount of radiation escaping into surrounding air and groundwater while meeting appropriate standards for local population health. [6] Additionally, nuclear waste in the U.S. is currently sitting at scattered storage facilities across the nation, but the need for a consolidated long-term solution is still needed. [6]

© Bryan Li. 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] "Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982," United States Code, 42 USC 10101, 18 Feb 16.

[2] K. Silverstein, "Nuclear Waste Will Never Be Laid To Rest At Yucca Mountain," Forbes, 24 Aug 13.

[3] J. J. Fialka, "The 'Screw Nevada Bill' and How it Stymied U.S. Nuclear Waste Policy," New York Times, 11 May 09.

[4] K. A Strassel, "Reid (Hearts) Jaczko," Wall Street Journal, 24 Jul 14.

[5] T. Garvey, "Closing Yucca Mountain: Litigation Associated with Attempts to Abandon the Planned Nuclear Waste Repository," Congressional Research Service, R41675, 4 Jun 12.

[6] "Harry Reid vs Yucca Mountain," Chicago Tribune, 31 Oct 14.