The Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Project Is Unworkable

It is time for the U.S. Department of Energy to throw in the towel on the beleaguered Yucca Mountain nuclear waste project because the site in Nye County, Nevada cannot be licensed at the present time for several reasons.

First, the Department of Energy lacks title to the land.

Under the Biden-Harris Administration, the Department of Energy will not request congressional action to withdraw the land within the repository operations area.

Congress has rejected such legislation in the past.1 The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff appropriately concluded in the Safety Evaluation Report that the Department of Energy had not met the regulatory requirements regarding land ownership or control necessary for issuance of a construction authorization. [SER, Vol. 5, p. vii.].

Secondly, the Department of Energy has not obtained the necessary water rights.

Nevada has never budged, nor will the state’s leadership relinquish them as they have stated consistently and repeatedly under bi-partisan governorships during the past 35 years.

According to the Department of Energy’s environmental impact statement, the proposed high-level nuclear waste disposal site — 65 miles from Clark County, Nevada’s populated areas — will need about 290 acre-feet per year for construction and operation of the repository.

The Department of Energy’s current water permit from the State of Nevada provides 2.3 acre-feet per year, but none of that water can be used for repository construction and operation. In the Safety Evaluation Report, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff cites lack of water rights as a second reason that a construction authorization cannot be issued. [SER, Vol. 5, p. vii; NEV-SAFETY-194]

The Yucca Mountain Project is unworkable for a third reason: the Biden-Harris Administration is not going to restrict U.S. Air Force operations to allow repository construction.

Construction of a repository cannot begin unless the Department of Energy has provided the commission with written notification that the U.S. Air Force has agreed to six flight restrictions and operational constraints needed to address military aircraft crash hazards.

These restrictions include prohibiting fixed-wing flights below 14,000 feet altitude within 5.6 miles of the proposed repository’s North Portal entrance; limiting to 1,000-per-year the number of aircraft flights above 14,000 feet within 5.6 miles of the North Portal; prohibiting aircraft maneuvering, electronic jamming activities, and carrying of ordinance within 5.6 miles of the North Portal; and prohibition on helicopters flying within a half mile of surface facilities that process, stage, or age nuclear waste forms. [SER, Vol. 5, page 1-32]

In addition, the Department of Energy’s plan to operate the repository is based on an obsolete hardware system.

The department’s 2008 license application and safety report assume that 90 percent of the first 63,000 metric tons of commercial reactor spent nuclear fuel would be received at the repository and packaged in transportation-aging-and-disposal canisters, known as TAD canisters in the nuclear industry.

As of 2022, no utility in the United States is planning to use these canisters, or canisters compatible with the system that the Department of Energy has proposed.

In 2021, DOE estimated that about 41,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel in dry-cask storage at U.S. reactor sites are already packaged in canisters that do not comply with the so-called TAD canister performance specifications in the Yucca Mountain repository license application.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff recognized the importance of this issue in the 2015 Safety Evaluation Report which prohibits the Department of Energy from receiving spent nuclear fuel in non-conforming canisters without prior Nuclear Regulatory Commission review and approval. [SER, Vol.5, p. 1-33]

Yet another lock-tight reason that the Yucca Mountain Project is unworkable is that the Department of Energy’s plan for railroad access is a mirage at best.

In 2008, the Department of Energy proposed building a rail alignment from Caliente, in eastern Nevada, to Yucca Mountain.

At 300-plus miles, the Caliente railroad would be longer than the distance between Washington, D.C. and New York City, crossing eight mountain ranges, and costing $2.7 billion or more.

The Bureau of Land Management public land withdrawal granted to the Department of Energy for the Caliente rail corridor has since expired, and the Department of Energy would have required more than 100 state permits for water wells needed for rail construction.

Federal designation of the Basin and Range National Monument in 2015, and the related conservation easement for the area around the “City” land sculpture installation in Garden Valley, Nevada create additional hurdles to the future consideration of the Caliente route.

The Department of Energy would probably need congressional legislation or a presidential decision overturning the National Monument designation to go forward.

The Mina rail alignment from northern Nevada — the Department of Energy’s alternative rail access route identified in 2008 — would need tribal and federal government Bureau of Indian Affairs approval to cross the Walker River Paiute reservation.

This would adversely impact Native American cultural resources outside reservation locations along the rail corridor; and it would adversely impact threatened and endangered species including Lahontan cutthroat trout; and would require major bridge and track construction through areas subject to flood and seismic hazards.

There are more reasons in Nevada’s contentions to the license application, but common sense should signal that this is enough to prove the Department of Energy’s plan to put a repository for highly radioactive waste and spent fuel at Yucca Mountain is simply unworkable.

1 Land withdrawal was proposed in 2018 (H.R. 3053 passed the House of Representatives but did not receive a floor vote in the Senate) and in 2019 (H.R. 2699 was reported from committees of jurisdiction but did not receive a floor vote in the House).

Co-author Fred C. Dilger Ph.D., is executive director of the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects. Co-author Robert J. Halstead served as executive director of the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects from 2011 – 2020. Dr. Dilger and Mr. Halstead have more than 50 years combined experienced working on Yucca Mountain issues and have authored or co-authored more than 50 publications and reports on nuclear waste management, environmental impact assessment, and energy policy.