The Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository is a deep geological repository for spent nuclear fuel and highly radioactive waste products generated in the United States. The site is adjacent to the Nevada Test Site in Nye County, NV which is about 80 miles northwest of Las Vegas. Approval for the project came from the 107th U.S. Congress in 2002, but federal funding for the site ended in 2011 with an amendment to the Depart of Defense and Full-Year Continuing Appropriations Act.
Without the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, there is no long-term storage site for high-level radioactive waste disposal. The government and American utilities currently use the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico to manage waste or have resorted to dry-cast storage on-site using steel and concrete casks.
Until there is no reason to produce high-level radioactive waste, there needs to be a manner of disposal that is safe for the general population. The idea behind the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository may have had some specific pros and cons to consider, but it also created a long-term solution that would have been beneficial
List of the Pros of the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository
1. The location of Yucca Mountain is relatively isolated from other population centers.
One of the primary reasons why Yucca Mountain was chosen by the federal government to be a repository for nuclear waste was because of how isolated it is compared to other parts of the country. Although the construction work remains unfinished because of political maneuvering over the past decade, the infrastructure for the site is already present. The closest communities are Amargosa Valley, Beatty and Gold Center along Highway 95, which is called the Veteran’s Memorial Highway in Nevada. The impact it would have on people would be minimal because no one lives out there.
2. It is next to a de facto repository for radioactive waste already.
The Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository is situated right next to the Nevada Test Site, which is where the U.S. government conducted dozens of nuclear weapons tests from 1951 until 1992. Many of the missions conducted at this location occurred underground to reduce or prevent the impact of radiation coming to the surface. You would need to travel a little further north to encounter this area, so there is already a transportation infrastructure in place that could help to transport nuclear waste into the repository.
Although this advantage doesn’t change the need to transport potentially hazardous waste across the country, it does provide a relatively safe place for holding and disposal for the required 10,000-year holding period.
3. The area receives very little rain throughout the year.
One of the most important reasons to consider the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository site is the fact that it receives an average of just 15 centimeters of rainfall during the year. The lack of precipitation helps to ensure that the storage containers do not corrode over time because of their exposure to moisture. That also means there is less of a risk for the radioactive particles to escape the site and travel beyond the boundaries into the general population center. It’s a closed drainage system that works to prevent most of the moisture that it does receive from leaving the area.
4. Yucca Mountain is made from volcanic ash.
When you look at the geology of Yucca Mountain, there are some advantages to consider for its service as a nuclear waste repository as well. Much of the region is made up of a substance called “tuff,” which is reconsolidated volcanic ash. It forms into an exceptionally stable rock that easily absorbs, without crumbling or cracking, the heat that would escape from the high-level nuclear waste packages stored underneath it. Although some critics question whether the natural geology by itself could keep populations safe, a combination of engineered systems with this material would likely get the job done.
5. It creates a long-term solution that manages American storage risks.
Critics point out that there isn’t a storage crisis right now for spent nuclear fuel, so the pros and cons of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository are sometimes thought of as a moot conversation. The current system, which involves a combination of cooling pools and dry casks that sit at reactor sites, requires active management to maintain a safe experience. It isn’t a permanent solution. There are currently over 40,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel stored in pools at 110 operating sites and closed reactors. About 2,000 tons gets added to the figure each year.
These sites require monitoring and 24-hour guarding. They are closer to population centers than the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository. If we were to use this option, then storage could occur in one state instead of 34, reduce costs, and eliminate many of the risks that this threat poses.
6. The waste would be in a place where no unauthorized parties would be permitted.
There is a small, arguably insignificant risk that the hundreds of waste pools and dry casks stored around the country could become a target for terrorist attacks. The issue may not be that severe, but it is still greater than what would happen if the storage were to occur at the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository. The materials would be hundreds of meters underneath the ground in a place where no unauthorized vehicle could approach. It would reduce our storage costs, free up labor for more important tasks, and virtually eliminate the risk of an overhead attack occurring.
7. It could be an economic generator for the general Las Vegas region.
Nye County is a tough place to live in the United States. It covers over 17,000 square miles, making it the third-largest county in the continental 48 states. Despite its massive size, there are only about 44,000 people living there according to the 2010 census. The county seat is Tonopah, which sits at the junction of Highways 6 and 95 with a population of about 2,500 people.
Jobs are tough to find in that area. It’s one of 11 countries where prostitution is legal. There are no incorporated cities, and Tonopah sits 160 miles from Pahrump, which is where almost 90% of the population resides. Having the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository provide jobs for this region could provide it with a significant economic post. The per capita income for the county currently stands at just over $22,000 per year.
8. The federal government already controls almost all of the land in the area.
The United States already manages about 92% of the land found in Nye County, NV. That makes it a legitimate site for managing the hazardous waste that the country creates each year to generate power, but there are some other benefits with this advantage as well. There are several Great Basin sky islands under management, a portion of Death Valley National Park, and the Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge are in the region.
List of the Cons of the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository
1. There would be an increase in risk from the movement of nuclear waste.
Because we would be moving nuclear waste in the open more often, there would be an increased risk of accidents, material targeting, and other threats that could potentially harm population centers in the United States. Proponents of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository point out that there are no confirmed fatalities from waste transportation and thousands of people who die each year in coal mines, but that is a false equivalency. When something disastrous occurs, then it causes exposure issues.
When the Chernobyl nuclear plant suffered a catastrophic incident, it claimed the lives of 31 people. Another 33 people died of cancer because of the Windscale fire in the United Kingdom. The USS Reagan has a class-action lawsuit against Tokyo Electric Power because of severe radiation-induced illnesses because the wind was blowing out to sea after the Fukushima incident. Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository could become another location on that list.
2. It is an outcome that feels forced upon the state by Washington, DC.
There is high-level resistance in Nevada regarding the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository because it feels like it is something forced upon them by the federal government. There is no getting around this disadvantage either. Many residents of the state don’t have the same views of the cratered Nevada Test Site, despite its sprawling nature and potential hazards, because it was a locally-enacted initiative during its early days.
Proponents might argue that the residents of Nevada would be doing the rest of the country and themselves a great service by making the best of the situation. Critics would say that it is easy to hold that view when nuclear waste isn’t being stored in your backyard.
3. Previous attempts to store nuclear waste in the region have already failed.
Bullfrog County was created in 1987 by the Nevada legislature to serve a 144-square-mile area around Yucca Mountain. It was carved out from Nye County and entirely uninhabited, so the county seat was the state capital in Carson City. The officers for the country where therefore appointed by the governor instead of elected since there were no residents. It was an area created in response to a planned nuclear waste site in the area.
The state took those actions to create high proper taxes so that construction would be discouraged in the area. Nye County ultimately filed a lawsuit claiming that the action went against the state constitution, so Bullfrog County dissolved in 1988. This disadvantage helps to prove that there have been over 30 years of resistance to the idea of dumping nuclear waste in the area.
4. There isn’t an urgent need to start burying nuclear waste.
Critics suggest that the idea of burying nuclear waste under Yucca Mountain has more to do with the idea of enhancing nuclear energy resources by giving the impression that the problem of waste has been finally solved. It becomes an entitlement program that can ensure budgets go to contractors through the Department of Energy for decades to come. Permits bring in money to the federal government while bypassing the state and its funding requirements. If Washington were to back out of the project once waste storage began, it would be the state government that would be responsible for its care.
All one needs to do is look at the results of the Hanford Site in Washington to see what long-term nuclear storage looks like. Washington State, the EPA, and the Department of Energy entered into a tri-party agreement to set cleanup milestones because of the contamination that is present in the area. Nevada doesn’t want to see the same thing happen at the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository.
5. It has taken decades and significant costs to study Yucca Mountain without results.
The Department of Energy spent over $7 billion in 20 years of study at the Yucca Mountain site to determine its viability for nuclear waste disposal. Some of the most fundamental decisions, such as whether the repository should be hot or cool, were not made over that time. During a 2000 tour of the ceiling in the facility, onlookers were surprised when water dripped on them during the tour. Heaters had driven water vapor out of the proposed storage area, but the moisture condensed when it hit the cooler rock above. That means neither option may be useful – and negates the benefits that would be possible by continuing the investment.
6. Ongoing engineering patches are likely necessary at the site.
After the issue with water condensation was discovered at the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, the Department of Energy proposed protecting the storage location with titanium drip shields. Those metal umbrellas would an another $4 billion to the overall cost of construction. It is one of many examples as to how the government continues to change its rationale to keep the project going even though there are glaring deficiencies to manage with the location. For more than a decade starting in 1994, the DOE said that it would approve or deny the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository project based on the ability of the geology to isolate the waste. When testing found problems, including more water than anticipated, then the government backed away from that promise.
7. There is no certainty in the quality of the storage canister metal.
The Department of Energy plans to use canisters made of Alloy 22 if the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository ever becomes approved and accepts materials for storage. This metal is a combination of nickel, molybdenum, and chromium. The suggestion is that the material could stand up to 10,000 years of storage thanks to its qualities that exhibit exceptional resistance to corrosion. The reality of this situation is that there is no way to know if it could stand up to that much abuse.
Even the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board had serious concerns about the reliance on canisters to pass the licensing standards for sites like the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository as far back as 1987.
8. Once the canisters are buried, we cannot make up for a serious miscalculation.
More than $5 billion has been spent at the Hanford Site in Washington with results that are very discouraging, including radiation leaks that have impacted workers in the area. We have learned from this management issue that having tons of radioactive waste permanently buried in underground tunnels puts us into a bind. If there are severe miscalculations or assumptions made in error, then there is no way to correct the situation. Even in the best-case scenario, the safety issues involve some degree of judgment with this site, which means there are risks that may develop over time that we know nothing about at all.
9. The political debate about Yucca Mountain has turned to national security.
Public fears of terrorists bombing containers of irradiated fuel are one of the primary arguments driving the political debate forward for the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository. It is an issue that comes up after brazen attacks, like the incident on 9/11, and tries to sway public support based on the idea that everyone is safer if nuclear waste were stored underground in Nevada. The reality is probably closer to the fact that Nevada has a small population, fewer delegates, and more isolated space – so it is a prime target for everyone else.
It is accurate to say that there is not a single form of power generation today that is entirely free of risk. When we talk about the issues associated with nuclear power plants and the transportation of hazardous waste, then we must also look at storage, uranium mining, and other potential hazards. The Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository gives us a way to reduce the risks while working to reduce particles and carbon emissions from our atmosphere.
The nuclear industry will always lose when the approach to hazardous waste storage is to bury it forever with the idea that there will never be any leaks. That is a ridiculous goal to pursue because it is unachievable, yet that is also the expectation that many have when developing this repository.
The pros and cons of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository are more of a political problem than anything else. There are ways to embrace nuclear power instead of worrying about it. It could improve the economy, employ hundreds of people for decades, and have plenty of room for growth.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Master's Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.