Yucca Mountain

Tito Gomez-Franco
February 23, 2017

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2017

The Nuclear Waste Question

Fig. 1: Bird's eye view of Yucca Mountain. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

With the use of nuclear energy the problem of nuclear waste has become an inevitable truth that plagues the existence and reputation of nuclear energy. For that reason the Department of Energy has on the behalf of the federal government tried in many occasions to device a plan that could take care of the nation's nuclear waste production. This has been a desire of the federal government for many years since the proper containment of said nuclear waste would secure a large hole in the United States national security considering the damage that nuclear waste can cause the general public. Projects such as Yucca Mountain have been possible answers to the question of nuclear disposal by the Department of Energy. Though due to resistance from local politicians in the state of Nevada and local citizens alike the plan has never gone into full effect leaving the nation without a valid permanent solution towards the nuclear waste crisis that currently plagues the country.

The Department of Energy's Answer

Yucca mountain is a mountain in the Great Basin and Mojave desert (Fig. 1) that is located around 80 miles from the Las Vegas Valley. This site is originally one of the ten location in 1984 selected by the Department of Energy for study. [1] The goal of the Department was to characterize the best waste disposal repository within the United States. After a few years of study the site was to be a storage facility through the Nuclear Waste Policy Act amendment of 1987. Through this act Yucca Mountain would continue to be a planned repository until it be deemed unsuitable in which case it would be shut down immediately. [1] Up until 2002 test were still being run at Yucca (Fig. 2), until George W. Bush gave the Department of Energy a green light on the project and then solidified it in the House Joint Resolution 87. The facility was scheduled to open on March 31, 2017 but opposition began to weigh down on the future of Yucca Mountain. [2]

Fate of Yucca Mountain

Fig. 2: A group entering Yucca Mountain in 2002. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The death of Yucca mountain began with the promotion of Senator Harry Reid in the Senate from Minority whip to Majority whip as the Democrats won the Senate. Senator Reid as a native resident of Nevada had opposed the Yucca Mountain project since its inception. Due to this already preexistent stance he took a hard line approach to the project and worked to make sure it would never come to fruition. During the Omnibus Spending Bill of 2008 due to Harry Reid's leadership in Congress the budget for Yucca Mountain was cut tremendously to the point at which the project was operating at a 300 million dollar deficit. [3] When the 2008 presidential election came around Barack Obama bargained with Harry Reid. To gain Senators Reid's support in the battleground state of Nevada Obama made a deal with Reid, if Reid gave his support to Obama in the primaries President Obama promised to make sure Yucca Mountain would never happen. [3] Due to this deal Obama won the Nevada primary and Barack Obama took further steps to become president and try to influence the Yucca Mountain project.

The last nail in the coffin for the project came in the form of a lawsuit by the state of Nevada in 2004. Originally the EPA had established a set of standards for the program to operate under. The state of Nevada ordered those standards to be reviewed. At a Washington D.C. appeals court the EPA was found to not have established the correct standard. The stated regulation said that for 10,000 years the containment facility would not exceed a radioactive measure of 15 millirem per year to the most exposed of the general public. [1] The court found that instead the regulation should have been that after the initial 10,000 years the facility should guarantee radiation dosage less than 100 millirem per year for a million years. This court order halted much of the work on the mountain since it required the Department of Energy to show that the site is resilient enough to withstand a million years of natural disasters, something that is extremely difficult especially in the 5th most seismic state in the United States which makes water contamination a real possibility. [4] With the program effectively halted there is no plan in place at the moment to manage the nuclear waste produced by the country. Instead nuclear facilities are expected to store their waste on site usually in underground chambers in concrete or steel casks. [4] This is not a permanent solution and the Department of Energy is still looking for an answer to waste issue in America.

© Tito Gomez-Franco. 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] H. Northey, "GAO: Death of Yucca Mountain Caused by Political Maneuvering," New York Times, 10 May 11.

[2] R. M. Jones "DOE Files Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository Application," American Institute of Physics Bulletin of Science Policy News, No. 64, 11 Jun 08.

[3] B. Wolfgang, "Harry Reid's Retirement May Revive Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Storage Plan" Washington Times, 27 Dec 16.

[4] B. Madres, "Storage and 'Disposal' of Nuclear Waste," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2011.