Yucca Mountain Repository is the proposed United States Department of Energy deep geological repository storage facility for spent nuclear reactor fuel and other radioactive waste. The repository is located in a desert on federal land adjacent to the Nevada Test Site in Nye County, Nevada, about 80 miles from the Las Vegas metropolitan area. The repository lies within Yucca Mountain, a ridge line in the south-central part of the U.S. state of Nevada. The ridge is composed of volcanic material (mostly tuff) ejected from a now extinct caldera-forming supervolcano.
The idea of storing radioactive waste in Yucca Mountain is controversial. Opponents argue that climate, erosion, earthquakes, and other natural forces would make it an unstable and unsuitable place for storage. The Department of Energy was to begin accepting spent fuel at the Yucca Mountain Repository by January 31, 1998 but has yet to do so because of a series of delays due to legal challenges, allegations of fraudulent geologic analysis, concerns over how to transport nuclear waste to the facility, and political pressures resulting in underfunding of the construction. There is currently no official date set for opening the facility.
The US Department of Energy (DoE) has submitted a license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for the construction. The preliminary process of checking over and 'docketing' the application was finished September 8, 2008. The NRC now has a statute time limit of 3 to 4 years to complete its safety analysis and public hearings. The earliest estimated date for starting construction is 2013. The Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management's current projected completion date for the project is 2017, but even if the NRC's review of the project goes well, the future of Yucca Mountain would still depend on the political climate in the USA. Congress voted to cut the project's FY2008 budget from $494 million to $390 million, the lowest award since 2002, when the Yucca Mountain site was approved, and continuing a four-year trend in which awards have been significantly below the amounts requested by DoE.
The Department of Energy began studying Yucca Mountain in 1978 to determine whether it would be suitable for the nation's first long-term geologic repository for over 70,000 metric tons (150 million pounds) of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste currently stored at 121 sites around the nation. On December 19, 1984, the Department of Energy selected ten locations in six states for consideration as potential repository sites. This was based on data collected for nearly ten years. The ten sites were studied and results of these preliminary studies were reported in 1985. Based on these reports, President Reagan approved three sites for intensive scientific study called site characterization. The three sites were Hanford, Washington; Deaf Smith County, Texas; and Yucca Mountain. In 1987, Congress amended the Nuclear Waste Policy Act and directed DOE to study only Yucca Mountain, which is already located within a former nuclear test site. The Act provided that if, at any time, Yucca Mountain is found unsuitable, studies will be stopped immediately. If that should happen, the site will be restored and DOE will seek new directions from Congress.
On July 23, 2002, President George W. Bush signed House Joint Resolution 87, allowing the DOE to take the next step in establishing a safe repository in which to store the country's nuclear waste. 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, Nevada Senator Harry Reid, a long time opponent of the repository, became the Senate Majority Leader, putting him in a position to greatly affect the future of the project. Reid has said that he would continue to work to block completion of the project, and is quoted as having said: "Yucca Mountain is dead. It'll never happen.
In 2007, the DOE announced it was seeking to double the size of the Yucca Mountain repository to a capacity of 135,000 metric tons, or 300 million pounds.
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.
The purpose of the Yucca Mountain project is to comply with the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 and develop a national site for spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste storage. The present prime contractor for the project is Bechtel SAIC (a consortium of government contractors Bechtel Corporation and Science Applications International Corporation). The consortium employs about 900 on the project in 2008. The main tunnel of the Exploratory Studies Facility is U-shaped, 5 miles (8 km) long and 25 feet (8 m) wide. There are also several cathedral-like alcoves that branch from the main tunnel. It is in these alcoves that most of the scientific experiments are conducted. The emplacement drifts (smaller diameter tunnels branching off the main tunnel) where waste will be stored have not been constructed since they require a construction authorization by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission per 10CFR 63. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act limits the capacity of the proposed Yucca Mountain repository to 63,000 MT of initial heavy metal in commercial spent fuel. The 104 U.S. commercial reactors currently operating will produce this quantity of spent fuel by 2014,assuming that the spent fuel rods are not reprocessed. Currently, the US has no civil reprocessing plant.
As of 2008, nine billion US dollars had been spent on the project which has made Yucca Mountain one of the most studied pieces of geology in the world. The Department of Energy (DOE) estimates that it has over 100 million U.S. gallons of highly radioactive waste and of spent fuel from the production of nuclear weapons and from research activities in temporary storage. The cost of the facility is being paid for by a combination of a tax on each kilowatt hour of nuclear power and by the taxpayers for disposal of weapons and Naval nuclear waste. Based on the 2001 cost estimate, approximately 73 percent is funded from consumers of nuclear powered electricity and 27 percent by the tax payers.
The latest Total System Life Cycle Cost presented to Congress on July 15, 2008 by Director Sproat is $90 billion dollars. This cost, however, can not be compared to previous estimates since it includes a repository capacity about twice as large as previously estimated over a much longer period of time (100 years vs 30 years). Additionally, the cost of the project continues to escalate due to the lack of sufficient funding to most efficiently move forward and complete the project.
The tunnel boring machine (TBM) that excavated the main tunnel cost $13 million and was 400 feet (125 m) in length when in operation. It at its at the South Portal (south entrance) of the facility. The short side tunnel alcoves were excavated using explosives.
The U.S. Department of Energy was to begin accepting spent fuel at the Yucca Mountain repository by January 31, 1998. However, 10 years after this deadline, the repository at Yucca Mountain is still over a decade away from being opened, and the opening date continues to be delayed:
As recently as 2005, the U.S. Department of Energy had been targeting a 2012–2015 opening date. However, the U.S. Department of Energy announced in 2006 that the earliest possible opening date is March 2017 and that a more realistic opening date is September 2020. The U.S. Department of Energy announced in 2007 that the opening date is likely to slip an additional year due to the continued lack of full funding. The U.S. Department of Energy anticipates submitting a repository license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in June 2008.
Because of delays in construction, a number of nuclear power plants in the United States have resorted to Dry cask storage of waste on-site indefinitely in nearly impervious steel and concrete casks. It is possible that a temporary facility may open at the Yucca Mountain site or somewhere else in the American West if opening of the underground storage continues to be delayed.
The project is widely opposed in Nevada and is a hotly debated national topic. Although about 15 percent of the electricity consumed by the Las Vegas metropolitan area is supplied by the Palo Verde nuclear station in Arizona and ten percent of the waste will be from America's military nuclear programs, a two-thirds majority of Nevadans still feel it is unfair for their state to have to store nuclear waste when there are no nuclear power plants in Nevada. 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 proponents of the site argue that Nevadans' objections constitute little more than not-in-my-backyardism. In addition, the Nevada Test Site (NTS), which borders Yucca Mountain to the east, is the location where over 900 nuclear weapons have been detonated and continues to serve as primary location for any future nuclear weapons tests if needed. The NTS currently hosts a variety of research activities, both nuclear and otherwise, and is the host to two low-level radioactive waste sites.
One point of concern has been the standard of radiation emission from 10,000 years to 1 million years into the future. On August 9, 2005, the United States Environmental Protection Agency proposed a limit of 350 millirem per year for that period. In October 2007, the DOE issued a draft of the Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement in which it shows that for the first 10,000 years mean public dose would be 0.24 mrem/year and that thereafter to 1,000,000 years the median public dose would be 0.98 mrem/year, both of which are substantially below the proposed EPA limit. These doses are also far lower than the 3 mrem someone receives in just one roundtrip flight from Nevada to Washington, D.C. from cosmic radiation.
On February 12, 2002, U.S. Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham made the decision that this site was suitable to be the nation's nuclear repository. The governor of Nevada had 90 days to object and did so. However, the United States Congress overrode the objection. If the governor's objection had stood the project would have been abandoned and a new site chosen.In August 2004 the repository became an election issue, when Senator John Kerry said that he would abandon the plans if elected. He lost the election to George W. Bush, who was re-elected.
In March 2005, the Energy and Interior departments revealed that several U.S. Geological Survey hydrologists had exchanged e-mails discussing possible falsification of quality assurance documents on water infiltration research. On February 17, 2006, the Department of Energy’s Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management (OCRWM) released a report confirming the technical soundness of infiltration modeling work performed by U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) employees. In March 2006, the majority staff of the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works issued a 25 page white paper "Yucca Mountain: The Most Studied Real Estate on the Planet." The conclusions were:
On January 18, 2006, DOE OCRWM announced that it would designate Sandia National Laboratories as its lead laboratory to integrate repository science work for the Yucca Mountain Project. "We believe that establishing Sandia as our lead laboratory is an important step in our new path forward. The independent, expert review that the scientists at Sandia will perform will help ensure that the technical and scientific basis for the Yucca Mountain repository is without question," OCRWM’s Acting Director Paul Golan said. "Sandia has unique experience in managing scientific investigations in support of a federally licensed geologic disposal facility, having served in that role as the scientific advisor to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, New Mexico. Sandia began acting as the lead laboratory on October 1, 2006.
Because of questions raised by the State of Nevada and Congressional members about the quality of the science behind Yucca Mountain, the Department of Energy announced on March 31, 2006 the selection of Oak Ridge Associated Universities/Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (a not-for-profit consortium that includes 96 doctoral degree-granting institutions and 11 associate member universities) to provide expert reviews of scientific and technical work on the Yucca Mountain Project. DOE stated that the Yucca Mountain Project will be based on sound science. By bringing in Oak Ridge for review of technical work, DOE will seek to present a high level of expertise and credibility as they move the project forward. This award gives DOE access to academic and research institutions to help DOE meet their mission and legal obligation to license, construct, and open Yucca Mountain as the nation’s repository for spent nuclear fuel.
There has also been a Western Shoshone lawsuit filed, challenging the United States' right to store nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain.
Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama has said he's opposed to Yucca Mountain and has called for the facility's closure. Republican presidential nominee John McCain has taken multiple positions on the issue; in May 2007, McCain said he would not be comfortable with nuclear waste traveling through his home state of Arizona, and specifically Phoenix, on its way to Yucca Mountain. In May 2008, during a campaign stop in Reno, Nevada, McCain said he supports the project.
For the first 10,000 years, the EPA would retain the 2001 final rule’s dose limit of 15 millirem per year. This is protection at the level of the most stringent radiation regulations in the U.S. today. From 10,000 to one million years, EPA proposes a dose limit of 350 millirem per year. EPA's proposal requires the Department of Energy to show that Yucca Mountain can safely contain wastes, considering the effects of earthquakes, volcanic activity, climate change, and container corrosion, over one million years. As noted in the above section labelled "Opposition", the current analysis indicates that the repository will cause less than 1 mrem/year public dose through 1,000,000 years.
The formation that makes up Yucca Mountain was created by several large eruptions from a caldera volcano and is composed of alternating layers of ignimbrite (welded tuff), non-welded tuff, and semi-welded tuff. Tuff has special physical, chemical and thermal characteristics that some experts believe make it a suitable material to entomb radioactive waste for the hundreds of thousands of years required for the waste to become safe through radioactive decay.
The volcanic units have been tilted along fault lines, thus forming the current ridge line called Yucca Mountain. In addition to these faults, Yucca Mountain is criss-crossed by fractures, many of which formed when the volcanic units cooled. While the fractures are usually confined to individual layers of tuff, the faults extend from the planned storage area all the way to the water table 1,000 feet (300 m) below. Some site opponents assert that, after the predicted containment failure of the waste containers tens of thousands of years from now, these cracks may provide a route for movement of radioactive waste that dissolves in the water flowing downward from the desert surface. Officials state that the waste containers will be stored in such a way as to minimize or even nearly eliminate this possibility. Even without faults and fractures, tuff is slightly permeable to water, but due to the depth of the water table it is estimated that by the time the waste enters the water supply it will be safe.
The area around Yucca Mountain received much more rain in the geologic past and the water table was consequently much higher than it is today, though well below the level of the repository. Critics contend that future climate cannot be predicted to 10,000 years so it is optimistic to assume that the area will always be as arid as it is today. Most geologists that have worked at the site still maintain that the geology will adequately slow the rate of waste seepage to protect water supplies even if the local climate becomes much wetter.
Nevada ranks third in the nation for current seismic activity. Earthquake data bases (the Council of the National Seismic System Composite Catalogue and the Southern Great Basin Seismic Network) provide current and historical earthquake information. Analysis of the available data in 1996 indicates that, since 1976, there have been 621 seismic events of magnitude greater than 2.5 within a 50-mile radius of Yucca Mountain. Reported underground nuclear weapons tests at the Nevada Test Site have been excluded from this count.
DOE has stated that seismic and tectonic effects on the natural systems at Yucca Mountain will not significantly affect repository performance. Yucca Mountain lies in a region of ongoing tectonic deformation, but the deformation rates are too slow to significantly affect the mountain during the 10,000-year regulatory compliance period. Rises in the water table caused by seismic activity would be, at most, a few tens of meters and would not reach the repository. The fractured and faulted volcanic tuff that comprises Yucca Mountain reflects the occurrence of many earthquake-faulting and strong ground motion events during the last several million years, and the hydrological characteristics of the rock would not be changed significantly by seismic events that may occur in the next 10,000 years. The engineered barrier system components will reportedly provide substantial protection of the waste form from seepage water, even under severe seismic loading.
In September 2007, it was discovered that the Bow Ridge fault line ran underneath the facility, hundreds of feet east of where it was originally thought to be located, beneath a storage pad where spent radioactive fuel canisters would be cooled before being sealed in a maze of tunnels. The discovery required several structures to be moved several hundred feet further to the east, and drew criticism from Robert R. Loux, head of the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects, who argues that Yucca administrators should have known about the fault line's location years prior, and called the movement of the structures “just-in-time engineering.”
In June 2008, a major nuclear equipment supplier, Holtec International, criticised the Department of Energy's safety plan for handling containers of radioactive waste before they are buried at the proposed Yucca Mountain dump. The concern is that, in an earthquake, the unanchored casks of nuclear waste material awaiting burial at Yucca Mountain could be sent into a "chaotic melee of bouncing and rolling juggernauts".
A series of large explosive volcanic eruptions occurred to the north of Yucca Mountain. These eruptions produced dense clouds of volcanic ash and rock fragments, which melted or compressed together to create layers of rock called tuff, forming the mountains and hills of the region.
The large-scale volcanic eruptions that produced Yucca Mountain ended about 12 million years ago. This explosive volcanism produced almost all (more than 99 percent) of the volcanic material in the Yucca Mountain region.
Several million years ago, a different type of eruption began in the area. These eruptions were smaller and much less explosive. These small eruptions were marked by lava and cinders seeping and sputtering from cones or fissures. The last such small eruption occurred about 80,000 years ago. The remaining volcanic material (less than 1 percent) in the Yucca Mountain region is a result of these smaller eruptions.
Yucca Mountain is not in an area where continental plates meet, nor is it located near any volcanic hot spots. In fact, experts consider the Yucca Mountain region one of the least active volcanic fields in the western United States.
The nuclear waste is planned to be shipped to the site by rail and/or truck in robust containers known as spent nuclear fuel shipping casks, approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Other options that are being considered include a rail route along the Mina corridor. This rail route would originate at the Fort Churchill Siding rail line, near Wabuska, Nevada. The proposed corridor would proceed southeast through Hawthorne, Blair Junction, Lida Junction and Oasis Valley. At Oasis Valley, the rail line would turn north-northeast towards Yucca Mountain. Use of this rail corridor by the Department of Energy would require permission from the Walker River Paiute Tribe in order to cross their land. As the first of the proposed corridor is owned by the Department of Defense, additional permission from the DoD would have to be granted.
In states outside of Nevada, the planned routes, dates and times of transport will be secret for security reasons. State or tribal representatives will be notified before shipments of spent nuclear fuel enter their jurisdictions.