President Trump’s preliminary 2018 budget proposal was released in March and along with many cuts to environmental programs, it includes $120 million to restart licensing operations for the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository (Yucca Mountain). This currently unused underground facility in Nevada has been in contention since the 80s and was strongly opposed during the Obama Administration by both the President and then Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV). While Reid pronounced Yucca Mountain dead in 2016, the new administration has big plans for the abandoned project.
Yucca Mountain consists of a five-mile-long tunnel that was drilled 1,000 feet deep in 1994, into a volcanic structure located 100 miles from Las Vegas. Theoretically, nuclear waste would be stored inside rooms along the tunnel — the idea being to isolate it from the surrounding environment for hundreds of thousands of years with the use of titanium shielding.
Nevada officials have put up strong resistance to the nuclear storage facility, dating back to its inception in 1987. The state has filed over 200 contentions against the application, encompassing a wide range of issues from legal concerns to volcanic hazard estimates, corrosion and toxic contamination risks.
In 1982, President Reagan signed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which called for the establishment of nuclear waste disposal dumps. The Department of Energy (DOE) was tasked with carrying out site assessments but, according to The Atlantic, “politicians didn’t want to pay for the expensive and lengthy technical assessments of all the potential sites,” and amended the Act to designate Nevada’s Yucca Mountain as the one permanent storage location in 1987. The initial goal was to keep the waste contained at Yucca Mountain for at least 10,000 years.
“Yucca Mountain was never a scientific selection, it was a political one,” nuclear industry expert and former nuclear engineer, executive and whistleblower Arnold “Arnie” Gundersen told EnviroNews.
“When the Yucca Mountain bill was passed, it was called the ‘Screw Nevada Bill.’ To revive Yucca is to ignore science. We have a nuclear waste problem that needs to be — in fact must be solved, and if done wrong can contaminate the environment for 250,000 years. Let’s have a scientific process that leads us to the best alternative, not a political mandate,” Gundersen continued.
In 1997, the US Government began heating and burying metal containers in the rocks at Yucca Mountain in an effort to simulate and study radioactive waste. Gundersen stated Yucca Mountain has been proven to have an underground water and waste seepage issue. Examples of studies of the rates of seepage at Yucca Mountain and how they are affected by temperature, time, geology and precipitation can be found on the US Department of the Interior and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory websites.
The State of Nevada’s Nuclear Waste Project Office states because Yucca Mountain is “geologically and hydrologically active and complex,” it is unsafe for the disposal of radioactive substances, which “could leak from the dump and create serious long-term health risks to the citizens of Nevada.”
In 2004, the Federal Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. ruled the DOE would have to prove it could keep the waste contained for hundreds of thousands of years, not tens of thousands, as originally proposed. In 2008, the DOE submitted a license application to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to store high-level waste at Yucca Mountain. But in 2010, the DOE shut down the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, which had run Yucca Mountain, effectively shelving the project.
In 2014, the NRC ruled Yucca Mountain could safely assure the isolation of nuclear materials over the long-term and was safe to use. Trump now proposes to supply an initial $120 million to restart the licensing process for Yucca Mountain. The LA Times reports the full establishment of the Yucca Mountain facility has an estimated total cost of $100 billion, rivaling the price tag of the International Space Station. Much of this lofty budget is attributed to the potential construction of hundreds of miles of railroad tracks to carry the waste from all over the country, protective titanium shields and specialized underground robots that can handle the waste.
“Republican, Democrat, independent — there is enormous opposition to Yucca Mountain,” Robert Halstead, Executive Director of Nevada’s Agency for Nuclear Projects, told The Atlantic. The state is currently preparing a new slew of contentions to the project. “The first thing we’re going to do is go back to court and sue them over the radiation protection standard,” he added. The article explains that critics of this facility worry the groundwater could corrode storage containers and cause a radioactive leak.
In late March, DOE Secretary Rick Perry visited Yucca Mountain and met with Nevada’s Republican Governor, Brian Sandoval. According to CNBC, Sandoval said, “The storage of high-level waste at Yucca Mountain is not something I am willing to consider.” In a DOE statement, Perry acknowledged Sandoval’s opposition and also said, “today’s meeting with Gov. Sandoval was the first step in a process that will involve talking with many federal, state, local and commercial stakeholders.”
Nevada officials who oppose Yucca Mountain cite concerns over radioactive spills or leaks and the toll that could take on Las Vegas’ tourism industry (not to mention public and environmental health). E&E News points out the possible impact on the tourism industry brings up a potential concern and conflict of interest for Trump, who co-owns Trump International Hotel Las Vegas with billionaire businessman Phil Ruffin.
“Clearly if there was a nuclear accident, Trump’s hotel would be impacted, as would others along the Strip,” said former Sen. Richard Bryan (D-NV), who is now Chairman of the state’s Commission on Nuclear Projects.
In contrast, local officials in Nye County, where the facility would be located, are more supportive of Yucca Mountain as a jobs-creator. Dan Schinhofen, Chairman of the county’s Board of Commissioners, wrote to Republican Rep. John Shimkus of Illinois, a supporter of Yucca Mountain, and characterized the threats to Trump’s hotel as “misinformation.”
Schinhofen also says Nye County hopes to be considered for an interim storage facility site as well, saying they already have a 1,280-acre location in mind. Developing an interim-storage facility while Yucca Mountain is prepared is another ongoing debated issue.
The DOE explains there are 61 commercially operating nuclear power plants with 99 nuclear reactors in the US, with four more reactors currently being constructed. Current nuclear utilities have 79,000 metric tons of spent fuel in reserve and produce 2,000 more annually, the LA Times reports.
The LA Times also explained the nation’s nuclear utilities have long been paying fees for waste storage services that the DOE has not provided. That fund now totals about $36 billion. Nuclear utilities have won $6.1 billion in settlements to date regarding this failure on behalf of the DOE.
Shimkus states, “Without Yucca Mountain, DOE will not be able to meet its disposal commitments to Colorado, Idaho, New York, South Carolina, Tennessee and Washington.” Yucca Mountain’s current legal waste limit is 70,000 tons.
At present, nuclear waste is most commonly stored in tanks, casks, drums and water-cooled pools. Many facilities and containers in use are not designed for long-term storage. For example, the Hanford site in Washington is well-known for its toxic leaking tanks, the cleanup of which is expected to take another 50 years and cost $110 billion. In 2014, a drum of radioactive waste exploded at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico, which serves as a dump for waste from nuclear weapons production.
The LA Times shared in 2016, “Thousands of tons of radioactive waste that were headed for [WIPP] are backed up in Idaho, Washington, New Mexico and elsewhere,” including at the Hanford site. Cooling pools are not an ideal solution either. In 2011 an earthquake in Japan knocked out power to the cooling pumps at the Fukushima Daiichi power station, which resulted in meltdowns in three nuclear reactors. The environmental effects are far reaching and still evolving today.
Dealing with nuclear waste is a mounting concern and while there have been some isolated useful applications and solutions found, many of them are not viable over the long term or intended for extensive deployment. For example, in 2016, British scientists turned nuclear waste into long-lasting nuclear diamond batteries for potential use in space travel, but this option is costly and not scalable.
Gundersen explained that vitrification, another possibility that has been explored, is “a process that adds chemicals to the waste, which is then heated into a glass like substance.” But, he says it shows “no evidence that 100 years from now the material will not break down and leak into groundwater anyway!”
In 2001, the National Academy of Sciences National Research Council wrote in Disposition of High-Level Waste and Spent Nuclear Fuel, “After four decades of study, geological disposal remains the only scientifically and technically credible long-term solution available.”
“Deep geologic disposal is the only alternative, in an area proven to be free of water,” concludes Gundersen. “Yucca has water seeping in, and has been proven to let waste seep out in a short period of time.”