Yucca Mountain Essay

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Yucca Mountain is the site of a proposed repository for spent nuclear fuel and other radioactive waste material. Yucca Mountain is located in Nye County, Nevada, approximately 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas. The land is under the joint control of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), the U.S. Air Force, and the Bureau of Land Management. The proposed repository would occupy 230 square miles of high desert with no permanent settlements within 15 miles. Yucca Mountain was formed by several layers of volcanic rock deposited over 12 million years ago. The rock is identified as “tuff,” which is formed ash deposited from volcanic eruptions.

Yucca Mountain has been considered as a potential permanent nuclear waste repository since 1978 when the DOE began studying the geologic character of the site. The DOE received authority to search for a suitable repository under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. An earlier precedent for the search came from a recommendation by the National Academy of Science in 1957 that suggested that burial of nuclear wastes in deep underground sites would protect the environment and ensure the health and safety of humans. The proposals to use underground burial in general and Yucca Mountain specifically have both met with significant resistance from the outset.

Despite repeated objections to the proposals by politicians and environmentalists alike, repository planning continued into the 21st century and has yet to be finally resolved. In 1983, the DOE studied nine possible sites for the repository and two years later President Ronald Reagan called for further in-depth analysis of three of those sites: Hanford, Washington; Deaf Smith County, Texas; and Yucca Mountain. A congressional amendment to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act in 1987 specified that the DOE would consider only Yucca Mountain. Further progress on the program was made on July 23, 2002, when President George W. Bush authorized the DOE to make formal application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a license to construct the repository. Delivery of the application was specified to be no later than June 30, 2008.

If the Yucca Mountain site receives final approval for repository construction, the total cost is estimated to be as high as $100 billion. In July 2006, the DOE determined that the repository would receive its first shipment of nuclear waste on March 31, 2017. However, the proposal continues to be vociferously opposed. Nevadans in particular are irate over the fact that a site was chosen in their state despite the fact that Nevada has no nuclear power plants within its borders. Concern was raised as well about Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) waste disposal standards, which specified that radiation levels would not exceed established levels for 10,000 years following the closure of the repository. Court rulings on this provision were found to be inconsistent with earlier recommendations issued by the National Academy of Sciences. Following this ruling the EPA proposed new radiation dosage limits to be effective following the 10,000-year period and extending to one million years following repository closing. No regulatory proposal has ever been made for this long of a period of time.

Nuclear wastes are now stored in containers at 126 sites in the United States, presenting multiple security and safety issues. Nevertheless, alternative storage options, including multiple monitored retrievable burial sites, have largely remained unconsidered. In 2006, a number of politicians suggested that the basic issue of underground storage of nuclear wastes be reexamined. The suggestion has been advanced to find alternatives to the Yucca Mountain underground plan. Political leaders are proposing a moratorium on Yucca Mountain and inviting scientists to come up with other plans for disposing of nuclear wastes. As of 2007, therefore, the viability of Yucca Mountain as a solution to the nuclear waste problem remains unresolved.


  1. Jeff Johnson, “Yucca Mountain: Building a Final Home for the Nation’s Nuclear Waste,” Chemical and Engineering News (v.80/27);
  2. Raymond Murray, Understanding Radioactive Waste (Battelle Press, 2003);
  3. David P. O’Very, Christopher Paine, and Dan W. Reicher, eds., Controlling the Atom in the 21st Century (Westview Press, 1994);
  4. S. Shrader-Frechette, Buying Uncertainty: Risk and the Case against Geological Disposal of Nuclear Waste (University of California Press, 1993).

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