What’s Wrong with the Federal Yucca Mountain Project?

There is a long list of reasons why Yucca Mountain is an unsuitable site for a nuclear waste repository, 65 miles from populated areas of Clark County, Nevada.

Somewhere near the top of this list is the U.S. Department of Energy’s plan to dig nearly 50 miles of emplacement drifts in fractured volcanic rock above the water table.

This arrangement would be poised for failure. By its design and the nature of the geologic setting, the metal containers of highly radioactive spent fuel assemblies would eventually corrode and inevitably leak dangerous radionuclides
into the groundwater.

From there, long-lived radionuclides would be transported by rapidly flowing groundwater in an aquifer that serves a wide variety of purposes, including providing water for dairy farms and alfalfa growers and tribal areas in and near Death Valley, California.

To meet the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 1-million-year standard for safely containing the nuclear waste, the Department of Energy must take into account volcanic activity near the mountain in Crater Flat and in the region where an eruption would be problematic for the planned repository.

In the worst-case magma could penetrate the repository and carry away nuclear waste canisters.

Surface facilities at the Yucca Mountain site in Nye County would include a 100-foot-tall building for receiving and unpacking spent-fuel assemblies after they would be delivered to the site. Called the Canister Receipt and Closure Facility, this is where the intensely radioactive spent fuel canisters would be removed from shipping casks and transferred to overpacks for aging and disposal.

This and other buildings would be vulnerable to potential military aircraft crashes from the adjacent Nevada Test and Training Range. That is where operations vital to fighter-pilot training and coordination with other national security assets are routinely conducted by Nellis and Creech Air Force bases.

The Department of Energy’s repository design and operations plan as spelled out in its 2008 license application submitted to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission will not fix what is wrong with the Yucca Mountain project.

There are a number of reasons why the plan flunks the safety test.

First the Department of Energy has proposed a “hot” repository design intended to keep underground temperatures above the boiling point of water for about 1,000 years. This by itself cannot prevent groundwater contamination and may
exacerbate it by changing the groundwater flow regime and chemistry.

It also creates major problems for waste acceptance and for safety during transportation, packaging and emplacement.

The Department of Energy’s plan calls for installing 11,500 titanium “drip shields.” It calls for installing one over each waste package a century later. The installation process also relies on unproven technologies.

Even if everything is perfectly installed there is no guarantee that it would prevent groundwater contamination.

The scenario also places the burden on future generations to commit the substantial titanium materials, money and resources required to implement drip-shield construction and emplacement in an aging repository only accessible by remote operations.

The Department of Energy’s operations plan has another glitch: it relies entirely on a hardware design — the transport, aging and disposal (TAD) canister — that is now obsolete.

The Department of Energy assumed that 90 percent of the incoming commercial spent fuel would be packaged in TADs. But as of 2022, about two-thirds of the spent nuclear fuel destined for disposal has already been wielded into dry storage canisters that do not comply with the TAD specifications.

Every aspect of the repository operations plan and facilities design would need to be revisited, with major complications for licensing.

The Department of Energy also assumed that 90 percent of the incoming commercial spent fuel would be delivered in large casks (weighing up to 125 tons), making rail access critical.

In 1986, the Department of Energy’s environmental studies showed that Yucca Mountain was the worst repository site for construction of rail access.

Then the situation got worse.

In 2008, the Department of Energy selected an unworkable route for the proposed new railroad from Caliente, in eastern Nevada, to Yucca Mountain by skirting the edge of the Nevada Test and Training Range.

At 300-plus miles, it 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.

Even if it could be built nuclear waste trains would still have to travel through downtown Las Vegas. Some nuclear waste shipments by truck might still have to travel on the Las Vegas Beltway.

The Department of Energy’s proposed transportation plan is of particular concern because it ignores the safety and security measures recommended by the National Academy of Sciences and adopted by the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future.

The Department of Energy grossly underestimated routine radiation impacts and the consequences of severe accidents and successful terrorist attacks.

Any and all of these events could release radioactive materials regardless of probability estimates. It takes only one accident to be a disaster.

Put simply, the Department of Energy’s proposal for a high-level nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada cannot solve the nation’s nuclear waste disposal needs.

Spent nuclear fuel stored at U.S power reactors exceeds 86,000 metric tons uranium. By 2050, the amount of spent nuclear fuel and other high-level radioactive wastes requiring disposal will exceed 150,000 metric tons.

The current law imposes a 70,000-metric-ton limit on total waste emplacements at Yucca Mountain.

Congress abandoned the plan for a second repository. If the additional waste were to be emplaced in Yucca Mountain, the repository design in the Department of Energy’s license application would need to be reworked extensively.

The sensible solution is to terminate Yucca Mountain and begin a new repository selection process.

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.