Second quarter of 2002

The US House of Representatives approves Yucca Mountain as Final Repository – Many Uncertainties Remain

WISE-Paris, 5 June 2002

[Posted 06/06/2002]

On 8 May 2002, the US House of Representatives approved Yucca Mountain site in Nevada, at 150 km northwest from Las Vegas. The US Senate is still required to vote on the issue, i.e. the construction of a 1,000 feet deep national final repository in the Nevada desert, with a capacity of around 70,000 t of spent fuel or a total activity of some 11 billion curies. High active waste is to be shipped to Nevada from 43 US States. According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry lobby group, by 2004, about 30 power plants across the nation will run out of storage space in the ponds used to cool and store used nuclear fuel. While it would be simple and fast to increase the dry store capacity for spent fuel in the US – an option the German utilities have taken after the shipment to reprocessing facilities will be prohibited as of July 2005 – the US nuclear industry wishes to impose Yucca Mountain as final repository.

The 15 year old Yucca Mountain saga (1) is not over yet. Serious scientific shortcomings have been identified concerning the site qualification. For instance, the EPA (Environment Protection Agency) had to write specific Yucca Mountain standards for carbon-14 releases, which would have exceeded existing EPA standards. The US Department of Energy (DOE) had to rewrite the site suitability guidelines because the estimated groundwater travel time from Yucca Mountain was fast enough to be a disqualifying condition in the original guidelines.

In fact, the region is in a volcanic area therefore submitted to a seismic activity just below California and Alaska in terms of frequency and magnitude, furthermore it has been found that storage itself could be infiltrated by groundwater which would cause the contamination of drinking water. This led to estimate that the site could only provide less than 1% of the containment (geological barrier, primary containment) over the 10,000 years during which the site is supposed to isolate the waste, and that the disposal casks and engineered barriers had to provide more than 99% of the containment (2). However, the oxidizing conditions due to the geochemical environment of the site cast serious doubts on the resistance of the containers over time.

The spent fuel transportation issue is also taken into account as it could concern up to 50 million people living within 0.8 km of the transportation routes. Independent studies contracted by the State of Nevada estimated that fulfilling the Yucca Mountain repository would engender 53,000 truck shipments or 10,700 rail shipments. DOE confirmed these figures (3) of a 35 times increase of yearly waste shipments compared to what was previously transported through the country. Waste shipments to the Yucca Mountain repository could also provoke increasing exposure to the concerned population as well as an increase of the risk of terrorist attack (4).

Despite the negative aspects surrounding the licensing of the repository, President Bush submitted the DOE’s Yucca Mountain recommendation to Congress on 15 February 2002. Nevada who vetoed the decision was overturned by the House of Representatives vote in favor of the repository, and the Senate is now expected to vote on the issue by the first week in July. However, even if the Senate vote, which is the subject of a harsh battle, turned out in favor of President Bush’s decision, the DOE would be required to file a license application for the repository with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission within 90 days. The General Accounting Office considers that the DOE would not be ready to submit a site recommendation until 2006, and the saga would go on …


  1. The 1987 Nuclear Waste Policy Act made Yucca Mountain the country’s sole candidate for a high level radioactive waste disposal facility
  2. Nevada Nuclear Waste Project Office analysis of DOE presentation to Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board, 1/25/99, cited in the Testimony of Joan Claybrook, President, Public Citizen, Yucca Mountain: The Hazards of Nuclear Waste Storage and Transportation, at the U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Air Quality, April 18, 2002, Washington, D.C.
  3. DOE, Final Environmental Impact Statement, February 2002
  4. General Accounting Office (GAO), Technical, Schedule, and Cost Uncertainties of the Yucca Mountain Repository Project, 21 December 2001

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