Aug. 7, 2022
Editor’s note: As he traditionally does around this time every year, Brian Greenspun is turning over his Where I Stand column to others. Today’s guest is Judy Treichel, a Las Vegas resident and the executive director of the Nevada Nuclear Waste Task Force.
What stands in the way of a solution to the high-level nuclear waste problem in the U.S.? Answer: Yucca Mountain.
For 35 years Nevadans have fought to keep the federal government and commercial nuclear industry from putting waste in a place that cannot safely contain it. The only sensible action for Congress to take regarding Yucca Mountain is to end the project officially. Once Congress does that, the nation can finally move on with a new commitment to establish a safe and acceptable nuclear waste management and disposal policy.
In 1987, Congress designated Yucca Mountain as the sole site to be studied to become the nation’s high-level nuclear waste repository. Over the strong objections of a majority of Nevadans, investigations began. After 20 years of conflicting scientific discoveries and opinions, opposition continued to grow. In 2008, the Department of Energy (DOE) submitted a license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for a construction authorization to begin to build a repository.
The next year saw nearly 300 contentions (contentions are specific arguments by parties opposing a license) submitted by 17 parties — including the state of Nevada — raising red flags about the safety and sustainability of the project. Before the project could move forward, each contention would have to be adjudicated with evidence and witnesses presented.
With years of litigation on the horizon and Nevada’s federal delegation finding growing support against Yucca Mountain in Washington, in 2010, the DOE informed the NRC that it was withdrawing the license application. There was a court challenge that concluded the application could not be withdrawn, requiring the process to continue if there was funding available to do so. For the past 12 years there has been no federal money allocated for Yucca Mountain, so the project lingers.
Gradually, over the last decade, debates and conferences have been held and articles written that have gone from demanding that the licensing process resume to acceptance and recognition that the Yucca Mountain project is dead. But rather than being dead, the project is a decaying zombie, sitting on a back burner, in danger of having the funding fire lit under it. And through each federal budget cycle, we hold our breath and exhale with relief when no money is provided.
Yucca Mountain exists because of a huge cluster of volcanic eruptions that occurred long ago. When the lava ash flew out of the volcano, much of it landed to its south, eventually resulting in a ridge that came to be given the name Yucca Mountain. There are three obvious younger volcanic cones to the west of the ridge and one to the south.
Yucca Mountain also sits on the eastern margin of an active earthquake zone that covers western Nevada and eastern California. According to UNLV, Nevada is the nation’s third-most seismically active state, only behind California and Alaska, with active faults across the state that are capable of “the big one.”
In 1992, a magnitude 5.6 earthquake struck within about 10 miles of Yucca Mountain. More recently, numerous large earthquakes have occurred within a 100-mile radius, including a pair of magnitude 6.4 and 7.1 earthquakes centered in Ridgecrest, Calif., on July 4 and 5, 2019, that shook the Las Vegas valley.
In addition to natural disasters, human activity is also present near the Yucca Mountain site. To the southeast of Yucca Mountain is Creech Air Force Base. It is a test and training range used by the U.S. military and some allied troops. Armed and unarmed aircraft and drones are tested there as well as pilots who train for military maneuvers. They routinely fly over Yucca Mountain.
Our troops are the best in the world, but accidents and equipment malfunctions happen. The risk of an aircraft crash at the Yucca Mountain radioactive waste handling area is sufficiently high that DOE has proposed military aircraft flight restrictions over the surface facility. The Air Force has not agreed to the proposed restrictions.
Yet the Yucca Mountain zombie still lingers today.
During the time since work and licensing activities stopped at the site, all equipment has been removed and a fence now partially covers the entrance to the exploratory tunnel. Animals can go in and out and with no maintenance or ventilation. It is expected that rockfall has occurred and some mold has formed. This means that Yucca Mountain today is not the same as what is represented in the license application.
If Congress decided to resume licensing activity at Yucca Mountain, the DOE and NRC would find the application is obsolete. The repository was designed to accommodate containers that have never been produced. Existing (high-level) waste is now stored in canisters that are much larger than those described in the application. It was assumed that the waste arriving at the site would be in containers ready for disposal. That would no longer be possible so waste packaging operations would occur in the earthquake prone area. Plus, the Department of Energy estimates the site still needs an estimated $100 billion in work before it could open.
Restarting Yucca Mountain will require years of redesign to try, unsuccessfully, to make this bad site work. More importantly, it will put off any effort to begin a program somewhere that could, with a consenting host, safely contain the waste.