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Michael Forlini | Jul 8, 2009
Although this may sound like a Neil Young song, Yucca Mountain is a nuclear repository. Congress approved Nevada's Yucca Mountain as a disposal site for spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste. The waste will be stored in a centralized underground facility. The site is located on federally owned land on the western edge of the Nevada Test Site in southern Nye County, Nevada, about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas. It is in the Mojave Desert, which receives less than seven inches of rain per year, and has a deep water table.
In the current repository design, the radioactive material will be placed about 1000 feet beneath the land surface and about 1000 feet above the closest ground water. The repository is designed to hold 70,000 metric tons of waste, 90 percent of which would be spent nuclear fuel from nuclear power plants and 10 percent of which would be high-level radioactive waste from government defense projects. Spent nuclear fuel is produced as a waste product by nuclear reactors from commercial nuclear power plants and government reactors, and high-level radioactive waste is produced from the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel.
Originally, Yucca Mountain was to begin accepting nuclear waste in 1998. However, a recent estimate expects that the waste repository will open by 2020 at the earliest. The government may owe commercial damages of $11 billion or more due to this delay. According to Allison M. Macfarlane, an associate professor of environmental policy and social science at George Mason University, Yucca Mountain does not meet international standards for a repository because it is located in an area of active earthquakes and volcanoes.
On October 15, 2008, the EPA established radiation standards for the facility at Yucca Mountain. The standards protect public health for up to 1 million years from the release of radioactive materials. According to the EPA, the Yucca Mountain Standards are in line with approaches used in the international radioactive waste management community.
Nevada's two senators have argued that EPA's standards (when proposed) placed millions of Nevadans at risk.
"Instead of working to protect the health and safety of Nevadans, EPA and DOE (Department of Energy) are casting science aside, in an attempt to get the nuclear waste dump approved," said Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada.
The Yucca Mountain project has been controversial since its inception. This controversy not only relates to disposal, but also transcends into the practice of using nuclear energy as a clean energy source. New nuclear energy plants will significantly add to this nuclear waste generation problem.
Ode to Yucca Mountain
The Yucca Mountain saga continues, and it sounds like a bad ballad. Basically, the Yucca Mountain controversy has gone nuclear. As mentioned above, Congress approved Nevada's Yucca Mountain as a disposal site for spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste, which will be stored there in an underground facility. With the Obama Administration's proposed budget, however, it appears that the more than $9 billion the U.S. has spent since 1983 to find a place to put nuclear waste was squandered.
The Obama Administration has presented a budget for fiscal year 2010 that would eliminate a significant amount of money required for further development of the site. Money has been allocated for the licensing process from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which includes public involvement. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission's licensing boards have just certified that an unprecedented 299 unresolved technical and other issues, put forward by Nevada, California and other hearing participants, would have to be addressed in any licensing hearing for this project to move forward.
According to several sources, President Obama and Energy Secretary Steven Chu “have been emphatic that nuclear waste storage at Yucca Mountain is not an option, period." A halt to the Yucca Mountain endeavor will save approximately $90 billion that would be needed to complete this project.
Another concern involves the proposed rail shipments to Yucca Mountain. Trains hauling casks of nuclear waste would travel to Yucca Mountain over a period of 50 years. There is a public concern that rail lines used for Yucca Mountain shipments would become "high threat" areas for potential accidents releasing radiation.
The Clean and Safe Energy Coalition has criticized the Administration's decision to halt the Yucca Mountain Project, since it will deprive the U.S. of lower-carbon sources of energy. This could also be costly to the federal government, since the nuclear utility industries will more than likely sue the government over a breach of contract claim.
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