Chapter 61: Yucca Mountain Project


The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 gave the Department of Energy (DOE) the responsibility to construct and operate a geologic repository for high-level waste. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) was given responsibility for regulating geologic disposal of the waste. In 1987, Congress directed DOE to focus solely on Yucca Mountain as the site of a repository.  DOE made its determination in 2002 that Yucca Mountain would be a suitable location; President George W. Bush and Congress accepted that determination and directed DOE to submit its license application.Slide1Yucca Mountain is located in a remote desert on federal land within the boundaries of the Nevada Test Site in Nye County, Nevada. It is approximately 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada.

High-level nuclear waste consists primarily of spent fuel from the nation’s commercial nuclear power plants, spent fuel from U.S. Navy reactors, and certain waste generated by DOE during development of nuclear weapons. The repository is to hold about 77,000 tons of high-level waste.  Approximately 57,000 tons of commercial spent fuel is already in temporary storage at 121 sites at nuclear power plants across the country.

On July 18, 2006 the DOE proposed March 31, 2017 as the date to open the facility and begin accepting waste based on full funding.  On September 8, 2006 Ward (Edward) Sproat, a nuclear industry executive formerly of PECO energy in Pennsylvania, was nominated by President Bush to lead the Yucca Mountain Project.  Following the 2006 mid-term Congressional elections, Democratic Nevada Senator Harry Reid, a longtime opponent of the repository, became the Senate Majority Leader, putting him in a position to greatly affect the future of the project.

In the 2008 Omnibus Spending Bill, the Yucca Mountain Project’s budget was reduced to $390 million.  Despite this cut in funding, the project was able to reallocate resources and delay transportation expenditures to complete the License Application for submission on June 3, 2008.  Lacking an operating repository, however, the federal government owes to the utilities somewhere between $300 and $500 million per year in compensation for failing to comply with the contract it signed to take the spent nuclear fuel by 1998.

During his 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama promised to abandon the Yucca Mountain project.   After his election, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission told Obama he did not have the ability to do so.  On April 23, 2009, Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) and eight other senators introduced legislation to provide “Rebates” from a $30 billion federally managed fund into which nuclear power plants had been paying, so as to refund all collected funds if the project was in fact cancelled by Congress. Slide2The Obama Administration stopped funding to continue to construct a repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada and directed the DOE to explore alternatives for nuclear waste disposal and continue proceeding in the repository license proceeding before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).  The President made clear that the Nation needs a better solution than the proposed Yucca repository.  Such a solution must be based on sound science and capable of securing broad support, including support from those who live in areas that might be affected by the solution.

1.1        The Facility:

The basic idea of geologic disposal is to place carefully packaged radioactive materials in tunnels deep underground.  A series of barriers prevent or slow the movement of radioactive materials from a repository.  These barriers include natural ones, such as thick unsaturated rock, and human-engineered barriers. These barriers are designed to reduce the total amount of any radioactivity that could eventually reach the water table where people might pump it from the ground and use it.

The current design for the potential repository calls for spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste to travel to Yucca Mountain by truck or rail in specially designed, shielded shipping containers.  Once these materials arrive at the repository, they would be removed from the shipping containers and placed in double-layered, corrosion-resistant packages for burying underground. Special rail cars would carry them underground, and remotely controlled equipment would place them on supports in an underground tunnel.

1.1.1     Waste Canister:

Prior to leaving a nuclear power plant, spent fuel rods will be placed in a canister called a Transportation, Aging and Disposal (TAD) canister. Under normal conditions, the rods will permanently remain in the TAD canister. The TAD will be placed in another outer container, depending on where in the process the waste is:

  • transportation, aging or disposal;
  • Prior to leaving a facility for Yucca Mountain, the TAD would be placed in a transportation cask, which is radiation-shielded, sturdy, and impact-resistant. The packages would be shipped primarily by train;
  • At the Yucca Mountain site, the TADs would be removed from the transportation cask and placed in aging or emplacement packages. The TAD canister transfer takes place inside surface facilities using remote-controlled equipment; and
  • TAD canisters that need to cool off, or age, before going into the repository will be placed in aging canisters and stored on aging pads located near the waste handling facilities.  TAD canisters ready to go directly into the repository will be placed in an additional, corrosion-resistant disposal package.

The Yucca Mountain Repository is designed to hold 70,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste in metal containers. The current design calls for a “canister within a canister” approach consisting of three containers – nested inside one another – to safely dispose of radioactive waste. First, the TAD canister that holds the waste will sit inside a stainless steel canister designed and built to provide additional strength to the package. The package is then placed in the outermost canister consisting of nickel alloy (Alloy 22), which is highly resistant to corrosion.Slide3The Yucca Mountain waste canisters are designed to:

  • Isolate radioactive particles from the outside environment;
  • Prevent physical and chemical reactions within the canister;
  • Manage the heat of the radioactive content; and
  • Remain intact during movement, including loading, transportation and emplacement.

1.1.2     Surface Facilities:

The current plan for surface nuclear waste handling facilities at the Yucca Mountain site calls for three waste handling facilities:

  • Receipt Facility – At the receipt facility, waste canisters are removed from the transportation casks and prepared for transfer to the appropriate waste handling facility. This facility also prepares unloaded transportation casks and railcars for return to the National Transportation System for continued use;
  • Initial Handling Facility – As the first building scheduled for completion, the IHF would prepare high-level radioactive waste from government facilities and spent nuclear fuel from the U.S. Navy for disposal;
  • Canister Receipt and Closure Facilities – The Canister Receipt and Closure Facility would receive all disposable canisters, except for naval spent nuclear fuel canisters, and prepare them for disposal. The facilities would be built in phases; and
  • Wet Handling Facility – A small percentage of spent nuclear fuel will not arrive at the repository in TADs, but will be shipped in transportation casks designed to handle individual assemblies of spent fuel rods. The Wet Handling Facility includes a pool of water in which spent fuel rods are removed from transportation casks, placed into TAD canisters and prepared for disposal or aging.


1.1.3     Receiving and Preparing Waste:

When the waste arrives at the repository, workers will use remote controlled equipment to remove it from transportation casks and place it in special metal containers called waste packages.  The remote controls allow workers to operate equipment from a distance, protecting them from radiation exposure.  Other remote equipment will install and weld inner and outer lids on the waste packages. Cameras and remote sensing equipment would assure that each waste package meets rigorous safety and quality criteria before going underground. Once the waste package welding and inspection is complete, an electric transporter called a Transport and Emplacement Vehicle (TEV) will move into the waste handling facility to transport the waste package to the emplacement tunnels. The TEV travels from the surface facility, enters the main tunnel and moves each loaded waste package to an emplacement tunnel. Once the access doors are opened, the TEV moves in and places the waste package in its designated position.

1.1.4     Employment Tunnels:

Emplacement tunnels, also referred to as “drifts”, are the specially constructed horizontal openings where the waste will be placed for disposal. The current design includes approximately 108 emplacement tunnels. These tunnels would be excavated in solid rock about 1,000 feet beneath the surface of the mountain and, on average, about 1,000 feet above the water table. The tunnels would be 18 feet in diameter, various lengths, and about 250 feet apart. They would be lined with perforated steel plates held in place by rock bolts to prevent rock from falling on the engineered features.

The underground location and the orientation of the emplacement tunnels are based on the following factors:

  • Thickness of the overlying rock and soil;
  • Characteristics of the rock itself (such as porosity);
  • Location of the fractures in the rock;
  • Distance from possible earthquake faults;
  • Depth to the water table; and
  • Distance from other underground features.

The design of the underground layout of the emplacement tunnels is also intended to manage the heat that would be generated by the waste. This heat will influence moisture in the rock, humidity in the tunnels, and other conditions within the repository. In addition, the tunnels are designed so that any water that enters them will drain, by gravity, downward and away from the repository.Slide5The DOE studies suggest that the location and geology of Yucca Mountain would allow small amounts of water to filter through the mountain.  The current system has features to combat any seepage that could reach the radioactive waste container. Thick, stainless steel waste packages with an outer nickel alloy shell and a drip shield designed to protect the packages from exposure to water work together to isolate the radioactive waste.

1.1.5     Repository Closure and Monitoring:

Federal regulations require the Department of Energy to monitor the repository after closure. Post-closure activities would include controlling the land and its boundaries, monitoring and testing the surrounding environment, and implementing safeguard and security measures for future generations.

In addition, DOE is required to restore the environment at the site to as close to its original state as possible, including: removing all materials and equipment that are not part of the permanent repository; sealing all openings to the underground facilities, and removing all surface facilities.  A monitoring program would focus on providing increased understanding of the processes, such as seepage and corrosion, which are most important to repository safety.

1.1.6    Preventing Human Intrusion:

Due to the long-lived radionuclides in the repository, DOE will use different measures to discourage humans from trying to access the repository, and to prevent water from entering through such openings. A network of permanent monuments and markers will be erected around the site to warn future generations of the presence and nature of the buried waste. Detailed public records will identify the location and layout of the repository and information about the waste it contains. The NRC requires that the monuments or markers “accurately identify the location of the repository, be designed to be as permanent as practicable and convey a warning against intrusion into the underground repository, because of risk to public health and safety from radioactive wastes.”

The current plan envisions a series of tall, enduring monuments about 25 feet high would be placed along the site’s perimeter as well as on and near the mountain’s crest. They would be designed to be noticed and to endure natural events, even water from future floods or the build-up of sand dunes deposited by wind. The warning messages on the monuments would be inscribed in several languages as well as pictures and symbols. The languages that would be used are the six official languages of the United Nations: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish. The messages may also be displayed in some simplified form of the sign language used by the hearing impaired. Linguists have recommended that a variety of picture symbols be used, including perhaps a unique international symbol for “Nuclear Waste Repository.”Slide6These messages would be inscribed about 40 inches or higher above the ground’s surface to prolong legibility. To better withstand corrosion and erosion, the monuments could be constructed from either granite or basalt. The messages must survive natural forces and remain legible and comprehensible as long as possible. Natural factors to be considered are abrasion from wind-borne particles, general surface erosion, and “desert varnish,” a dark coating or polish often found on rock surfaces after long exposure in desert regions; desert varnish is typically caused by a buildup of iron and manganese oxides.

The shapes and dimensions of the monuments are also important factors. The current concept calls for the perimeter monuments to be six-sided cones pointing upwards at varying angles. As shown in the schematic drawing, they would rise out of the ground above the repository near the larger monuments, as well as around the entire surface perimeter of the underground repository. They would be designed to be unnatural-looking so they would draw attention, but not be misconstrued as memorials of honor.

1.2       Radiation Standards:

In September 2008 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) established its final radiation standards for the proposed spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste disposal facility at Yucca Mountain.

EPA is required to set standards consistent with the findings and recommendations of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and satisfy a July 2004 court decision to extend the standards’ duration. EPA states that the Yucca Mountain standards are in line with approaches used in the international radioactive waste management community. The final standards will:

  • Set an individual protection standard for an overall dose limit of 15 millirem per year for residents living in the vicinity of Yucca Mountain during and up to 10,000 years after the repository closes. The overall annual dose limit takes into account exposure through all pathways. After 10,000 years through the period of geologic stability (out to 1 million years) the individual-protection standard is set at 100 mrem/yr;
  • Set a human intrusion standard for a dose (limit of 15 millirem per year during and up to 10,000 years after the repository closes). It takes into account releases caused by a borehole going through a waste container and into the underlying ground water. After 10,000 years through the period of geologic stability (out to 1 million years) the standard is set at 100 mrem/yr;
  • Require the DOE to consider the effects of climate change, earthquakes, volcanoes, and corrosion of the waste packages to safely contain the waste during the 1 million-year period; and
  • Be consistent with the recommendations of the NAS by establishing a radiological protection standard for this facility at the time of peak dose up to 1 million years after disposal.

Radiation exposures from a repository are estimated by the Department of Energy as follows:Slide7

  • During the first 10,000 years following the closing of the proposed repository, persons living in Amargosa Valley would receive little or no increase in radiation exposure from the repository. (This community is referenced because water from Yucca Mountain flows toward the Amargosa Valley. Water is expected to be the vehicle that would move radioactive particles from a repository to the water table and from there to contact with people and the environment.); and
  • The Department estimates the maximum exposure to occur some 300,000 years after the repository is closed.  At that time, it is possible that some people living in the Amargosa Valley could receive an additional 260 millirem per year.  This would bring their total radiation dose to around 660 millirem per year.

Human exposure to radiation varies from natural sources, such as radon and ultraviolet radiation from the sun, and other sources, such as medical X-rays.  The average annual radiation exposure from both naturally occurring and manmade sources for a person living in the United States has been estimated to be 360 millirem per year.  Thus, to put the estimated repository dose in perspective, 660 millirem is somewhat higher than the 360 millirem national average on a yearly basis but well below levels received by people living in other parts of the United States.

1.3        Cost:

In 2008 the DOE issued a revised total cost estimate of the repository.  The latest estimate puts the cost of research, construction and operation of the geologic repository over a 150 year period – from when work started in 1983 through to the facility’s expected closure and decommissioning in 2133 – at 96.2 billion (in 2007 dollars) Excluding inflation, the new estimate increased 38 percent to $79.3 billion.

The new estimated cost includes some 13 5 billion that has already spent on the project; 54.8 billion for the construction, operation and decommissioning of the repository; 19 5 billion for transportation of the used fuel; and 8.4 billion for other program activities.  The DOE said that the new cost estimate reflects a 30 percent increase in the amount of used nuclear fuel from commercial nuclear power reactors to be disposed of in the repository. In 2000, it was estimated that some 83,800 tonnes heavy metal (tHM) of used fuel would be stored, but the latest estimates put the quantity at 109,300 tHM. This increased amount – resulting from existing and anticipated operating licence renewals at US reactors – would extend the transportation period by 16 years and the emplacement period by 25 years.Slide8The total cost of constructing and operating the repository is divided between utility ratepayers and taxpayers, with ratepayers estimated to pay just over 80 percent, or $77.3 billion. The DOE has determined that the fee currently paid to the government for the Nuclear Waste Fund by nuclear utilities of 0.1¢ per kWh of electricity they generated remains adequate to cover the nuclear utility customers’ share of the total costs. It is therefore not proposing a change in this fee.

1.4       Opposition:

The Yucca Mountain project is widely opposed in Nevada and is a hotly debated national topic.  A 2006 public opinion survey conducted by the Governor’s office showed that opposition to the program is very high.  Statewide, 72.4 percent of Nevadans oppose locating a high-level nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain and would vote against it if given the opportunity.  Only 23.9 percent support the project.  The 2006 survey results are consistent with results from prior surveys dating back to 1989.  Many Nevadans’ opposition stemmed from the so-called “Screw Nevada Bill,” the 1987 legislation halting study of Hanford and Texas as potential sites for the waste before conclusions could be met.

Other individuals and organizations question the quality and accuracy of the scientific assessment of the site done by the DOE and its contractors.  Of particular concern is the possible risk associated with the contamination of groundwater with radiation and the release of radiation from earthquakes and other tectonic activity.  Critics charge the DOE science underestimates such risks, and may be biased because the DOE has a vested interest in the project going forward.

The DOE strongly rejects the claim that its scientific assessments are inadequate and/or in error, describing the Yucca Mountain as the most intensively investigated site on Earth.

1.5       Lessons Learned from the Yucca Mountain Repository Program:

The Blue Ribbon Commission (the Commission) on America’s Nuclear Future presented an analysis on the subject in its report which included the following substance.

DOE succeeded in completing the world’s first license application for a HLW repository.  Submitted to the NRC in June 2008, the license application was deemed suitable for review three months later.  Within a year, however, the new Administration declared its intent to suspend further work on Yucca Mountain and later moved to withdraw the application for a construction license to the NRC.  At this point, with key decisions by the courts and the NRC still pending, the future of the Yucca Mountain project remains uncertain.Slide9Several attributes of the nation’s approach to nuclear waste management generally, and to the selection and characterization of the Yucca Mountain site in particular, are widely viewed as having contributed to the long delays and significant difficulties encountered in implementing the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA) Amendments:

  • First, DOE’s termination of the siting process for the second repository, combined with Congress’s subsequent action to short‑circuit the site selection process established under the original NWPA and single out Yucca Mountain as the sole site for consideration, created a widespread perception that the repository location was being determined on the basis of primarily political, rather than technical and scientific, considerations;
  • Second, neither the original site selection process established by the Act nor the subsequent legislative designation of Yucca Mountain as the sole site for consideration could be viewed as consent-based since the State of Nevada was not asked for, and did not provide, consent for the site to be selected for investigation.  On the contrary, the state and a majority of its citizens strongly opposed the selection of Yucca Mountain as a potential repository site, although the project did have some support from local constituencies.  However, in comments submitted to the Blue Ribbon Commission during the course of its deliberations, several counties in Nevada—including Nye, Mineral, and Lincoln counties—have expressed support for the Yucca Mountain project or for at least allowing the license approval process for Yucca Mountain to go forward;
  • A third issue, and one that pre-dated the decision to focus only on Yucca Mountain, was the practice of setting unrealistic and rigid deadlines.  As DOE failed time and again to meet various deadlines, confidence in the federal government’s competence to manage either the Yucca Mountain project or its broader obligations concerning the management of civilian and defense nuclear waste eroded among all parties involved.  Key stakeholders, including not only citizens of the communities where these materials were being stored, but also nuclear utilities and their customers, who continued to pay into the Nuclear Waste Fund even as the repository program fell further and further behind, became increasingly frustrated.  All the while, the federal government was also exposing itself (and U.S. taxpayers) to liability and large financial damages arising from its failure to comply with its obligations under the Act and DOE contracts with utilities in a timely manner; and
  • Another fundamental flaw of the repository development process established under the 1982 Act, and one that carried over to Yucca Mountain after it was designated, was its relative inflexibility and prescriptiveness.  This made it difficult to adapt or respond to new developments, whether in the form of new scientific information, technological advances, or (just as important) the expressed concerns of potentially affected publics and their representatives.   The 1987 NWPA Amendments made no provision for an alternative path forward if Yucca Mountain proved untenable.  This lack of adaptability further undermined confidence in the analysis and planning conducted by DOE and other federal agencies, making it easy to view these efforts as mere paper exercises, rigged to justify a preordained conclusion.  Similarly, by directing EPA to develop safety standards specific to the Yucca Mountain site in the Energy Policy Act of 1992, Congress undermined confidence that those standards represented an independent scientific judgment about what was necessary to protect human health and the environment.

These attributes of the Yucca Mountain siting process led to a serious erosion of trust, especially among the people of the state of Nevada.  The recent decision by the Administration to attempt to withdraw the Yucca Mountain license application has further diminished confidence in the government’s ability to provide a safe and timely solution for the disposal of spent fuel and HLW.  This is not a comment on the merits of the Administration’s decision; the Commission was not asked to examine that issue and offers no opinion.

However, it is clear to the Commission that waste cleanup commitments were made to states and communities across the United States and to the nuclear utility industry and its ratepayers and shareholders that have not been upheld.  The decision to suspend work on the repository has left all of these parties wondering, not for the first time, if the federal government will ever deliver on its promises.


  1. NRC – Facts Sheet on Licensing Yucca Mountain Repository;
  2. Wikipedia – Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository;
  3. The Energy Library – Yucca Mountain Repository; and
  4. The Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future.

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