Geological Repositories: Yucca Mountain

Andrew Chun
March 13, 2019

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2019

Nuclear Waste and Deep Geological Disposals

Fig. 1: Proposed plan for the Yucca Mountain repository. (Courtesy of the DOE. Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The search for a clean and renewable energy source and the drive to switch away from the burning of fossil fuels that release harmful carbon dioxide into the atmosphere have led many to consider nuclear energy as an alternative. As recently as 2013, 440 nuclear power plants located in as many as 30 different countries accounted for 11% of the worlds electrical energy. [1] By 2050, the projected energy increase from nuclear power is between 1.6 and 3.9 times what it is now, meaning up to 1,450 GWe could come from nuclear sources in the near future. [1] While this may seem like a promising path towards a fossil-fuel free future, one of the biggest drawback to nuclear energy are the dangers of nuclear waste. In particular, high level waste (HLW), which requires those who handle it to wear extensive protection as a safeguard against its hazardous levels of radioactivity, needs to be stored underground in what are known as deep geological repositories. [2] In this type of nuclear waste management, HLW that may take tens of thousands of years to decay, is buried in underground tunnels composed of salt, rock, or clay that create a natural barrier that insulates the waste and keeps it away from the environment. [1]

Issues with Geological Repositories

While geological repositories are the preferred solution to dealing with HLW, there are a number of drawbacks. [3] Leakage, for example, can occur if the waste is not properly packaged or stored. This can lead to the contamination of nearby water sources, depending on where the repository was located, and cause harm to people in the area. Another concern comes from the threat of earthquakes that could damage or break the geological insulation of the waste, causing even more contamination. [4] Furthermore, even though the repositories are normally located in isolated places, they are understandably opposed by those who live closest, making the placement of repositories a contentious political issue.

Yucca Mountain Waste Repository

In 1982, Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act that said HLW must be stored in geological repositories, putting the Department of Energy (DOE) in charge of finding a suitable location. By 1987, Yucca Mountain was chosen and plans to create the repository were made (see Fig. 1. [5] Located in Nevada about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Yucca Mountain was chosen for a number of reasons including its closed water basin, waste isolating type of rock, and dryness that meant little groundwater movement. [5] Moreover, political influences likely played a role in the selection of Yucca as the mountain is located on that the federal government already owned and Nevada was a large state that had a relatively small population (making in-state political opposition weaker). [5]

Opposition to the Repository

Opposition to the Yucca Mountain repository came largely from Nevada residents and political representatives who were not keen on having radioactive waste buried in their state. In addition to the potential health risks that could come directly from the repository, many questioned how HLW and other radioactive materials could be transported to the site without spreading contamination. [6] Other critics of the DOEs site decision argued that the mountain is in a region prone to earthquakes which makes the decision to put a repository there much too risky. [5] It was through arguments like these that Nevada successfully prevented waste from being stored in Yucca Mountain and in 2011, the Obama administration pulled the programs funding entirely. [7]

Yucca Mountain: Going Forward

The immense political and public opposition from Nevadas representatives and people has been the driving force behind keeping the Yucca Mountain free from waste. Each attempt that the federal government has made to go forwards with their plans has been met with staunch opposition that has prevented any waste from being disposed of in the mountain. While other geological repositories nearby, such as the Carlsbad repository in New Mexico in 1999, have been successfully activated, to this day Yucca remains hotly contentious. [7] As governmental administrations change and the demand for places to dispose HLW increases, it is well within the realm of possibility that Yucca comes back into play.

© Andrew Chun. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. 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] J.-S. Kim et al., "Geological Storage of High Level Nuclear Waste," KSCE J. Civ. Eng. 15, 721 (2011).

[2] M. I. Ojovan and W. Lee, An Introduction to Nuclear Waste Immobilisation (Elsevier, 2013).

[3] A. Horvath and E. Rachlew, "Nuclear Power in the 21st Century: Challenges and Possibilities," Ambio 45, S38 (2016).

[4] S. Ali, "Nuclear Waste Disposal Methods," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2011.

[5] A. Macfarlane, "Underlying Yucca Mountain: The Interplay of Geology and Policy in Nuclear Waste Disposal," Soc. Stud. Sci. 33, 783 (2003).

[6] J. Garcia, "The Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2012.

[7] C. Druzgalski, "The Fate of Yucca Mountain," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2012.