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June 19, 2012

Yucca Mountain: The Safe Future for Nuclear Energy

June 19, 2012
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Despite controversy surrounding the disposal of spent nuclear fuel, nuclear power will continue to occupy an essential role in the United States’ electricity production for the foreseeable future. The 19 percent of the electricity generated in the United States by nuclear power plants is comparable to the electricity used in California, Texas, and New York combined. Besides that, nuclear power accounts for 8.5 percent of our total domestic energy consumption. [1]

Nuclear plants—of which there are 104 total in the United States—produce far less waste than traditional power plants: a 1,000-MW nuclear-electric plant, for example, produces about one metric ton of waste per year, versus one million tons from a similarly sized coal plant.  However, the nuclear waste is much more toxic and is harder to dispose of. Considering that the federal government has terminated the operation of the private spent fuel reprocessing facilities in the 1970s, and is unlikely to bring them back, geological isolation of the hazardous materials is the only viable long-term disposal solution currently available. This means storing the waste in highly stable geologic formations that have remained seismically inactive for millions of years. [2]

In this light, the March 2010 decision of the Obama administration to withdraw funding from the Yucca Mountain project – the nation’s only permanent repository for high-level spent nuclear fuel authorized by current law – was  presents a troubling picture for the future of nuclear energy. [3] In the absence of almost any viable alternatives, killing a government-funded project that has been in development for more than 20 years and cost $15 billion was a huge blow to the taxpayers that funded it.

The Obama administration has been handling this critical issue with a complete lack of consistency: on one hand the President extols the benefits of nuclear power in his speeches, and on the other he advocates closing the byproduct storage facility that ensures it can have a future. Even considering the extra costs associated with the revival of the Yucca Mountain, bringing the storage back would make more sense in the long run for a number of reasons.

First, Yucca Mountain has undergone a 30-year-long process of scientific examination and has been accepted by law (see Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, as amended in 1987) as the only permanent nuclear waste repository in the United States. Since people are reluctant to live near a nuclear waste dump, the territory on which the depository was supposed to be constructed is highly unlikely to be ever re-used for agricultural needs or settlements. Furthermore, U.S. taxpayers have already spent $15 billion in studying and development in the project so far, making its abandonment in favor of a yet-undiscovered alternate location a hugely uneconomic decision.

Moreover, the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 required utilities that generate electricity using nuclear power to pay a fee of one tenth of one cent ($0.001) per kilowatt-hour into the Nuclear Waste Fund, which would be used to help pay for Yucca Mountain. At some point, the Federal government needs to move forward and provide a return on that investment. [4]

Lastly, the inability of federal policymakers to neither agree on the Yucca Mountain site nor come up with alternatives exposes American taxpayers to millions of dollars gone down the drain while nuclear energy’s future remains stuck among the papers on the desks of the Department of Energy officials.

Let’s face it: There is probably no immediate solution to the spent nuclear fuel disposal issue during a presidential election year. Yet, being a relatively safe and environmentally efficient way of generating electricity, nuclear power will continue to be an important, even indispensable, part of the U.S. energy mix. For this reason, the revival of the Yucca Mountain facility makes the best economic and energy sense for America’s nuclear powered future.

(IER Summer Policy Fellow Natalia Suvorova contributed to this post)


[1] “Hard Facts. An Energy Primer,” Institute for Energy Research, 2012.

[2]  Robert L. Bradley. Using Energy

[3] “Administration actions designed to increase the cost and reduce the reliability of energy,” Institute for Energy Research, 2011.

[4] “Nuclear Power,” Institute for Energy Research,, 2008.

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  • AbeVanLuik

    I do not want to be critical of this article, it represents a legitimate point of view and backs up that point of view quite well.  In fact one thing that adds to the arguments made here is that the US government is on the hook for hundreds of millions per year because of the breach of contract lawsuits the utilities have quite consistenly won.  This adds to the urgency to take waste from those utilities and stop those taxpayer-funded payments!

    But there are some factors that argue against resolving this problem by restarting Yucca.   First there is no foregone conclusion that, even if Yucca would have been licensed, construction would actually have started.  Look at Private Fuel Storage in Utah as an analogue: it is licensed, but still stymied by political opposition years later.   

    Second, rumor has it nine states have now sent letters expressing some degree of interest in talking about hostng a storage or a disposal site.  This is a direct result of (1) the poor ecomomy, and (2) the report from the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future and its mention of how our one operating deep geological radioactive waste repsoitory in New Mexico is a local and to some degree a statewide hit.  In fact, one of the letters asking for DOE to look into more waste coming to New Mexico is from the Governor of that State!

    If the government moves quickly in checking out the feasibility of a facility in these “volunteer” states, a repository, or most certainly a regional storage facility, could be operating long before a Yucca repository would have started taking waste.

    Finally, there is no use crying over that 15 billion dollars lost.  (1)  It is about 10 billion, nearly 5 billion was spent on the other repository projects in play before Yucca was selected by Congress in 1987.  (2)  If a good clay/shale or salt site is used, there is no need for the exotic metals that were to be used to assure safety for a million years at Yucca Mountain.  Those engineered barriers were to cost about 15 billion.  Not using them in a clay or a salt repository would save as much as has been “wasted” on repository projects so far.  Much was learned in terms of science and engineering through the pursuit of these projects, and that knowledge does have some value for the nation.

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  • MauryMorgenstein

    The title of this article is unfortunate, as Yucca Mountain
    would not likely provide a safe future for nuclear waste. The fundamental
    premise of this article is that Yucca Mountain would have passed through the
    NRC licensing hearings to acquire a license because it is an adequate site for
    high-level nuclear waste disposal. There are severe factors that argue against
    this scenario.  The site as well as
    the process itself suffered from serious technical deficiencies. It was not
    only a poor choice in comparison to other geologic locations; it was clearly the
    wrong choice made for the wrong reasons.


    The process as stipulated in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of
    1982 was based upon the sound concept that the site(s) chosen for study would
    be centered upon scientific merit not political wrangling. Yet this turned out
    not to be the case, as Yucca Mountain became a politically manipulated victim
    with the 1987 amendment to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. The basic premise of
    the Department of Energy and USGS was that the geological environment would
    inhibit rapid high-level nuclear waste transport. When this misguided concept
    turned to out to be false, as exemplified by the chlorine -36 data, the DOE put
    all its high-level radionuclide retardation credits into a redesigned and very
    expensive engineered barrier and all but ignored the geologic environment. The
    geologic environment was not much more than a paper bag, quite insignificant
    with respect to radionuclide retardation and certainly it did not represent the
    vision of the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act. Even the DOE looked at the site as
    adequate, but certainly not stellar.


    Engineered barriers are a good and reasonable ‘second
    defense’ but should not by any means be the primary barrier to radionuclide
    transport. The geologic site chosen to house high-level radionuclide waste
    needs to have a compelling capacity to retard radionuclide transport for the
    appropriate regulatory period of time. Thankfully there are geologic
    environments within volunteer States that are likely to be chosen now as
    potential repositories that have the desirable parameters from both science and
    engineering perspectives.


    It is now time to embrace the suggestions of the Blue Ribbon Commission on
    America’s Nuclear Future. It is time to more forward, time to acquire an
    outstanding geologic repository site to house high-level nuclear waste. It
    would be nice for the IER to join in this process.

  • Many of the comments by Florian Glodeanu are right on target. There is more toxic waste produced in one day by coal-fired power plants than all the waste produced by nuclear power in its entire history. Sure, the nuclear waste is much more radioactive, but it is totally segregated from the environment and, has never presented a problem to the public. The coal waste is dumped in landfills and sludge ponds without protection. This waste contains Arsenic , Lead, Mercury, Asbestos, Uranium and many other substances. Recall the disaster at the Kingston plant in Tennessee in Dec. 2008. The concept of storing nuclear waste for thousands of years in a suitable geological location is totally flawed. No such location is ever likely to be found, such as to satisfy the critics. If the US followed the lead of many other countries in reprocessing the waste, the quantity would be reduced to 20%. Surely, over the next hundred years transmutation processes of the residue will have been developed to the point where little if any problem material remains. By this time space transportration will also have reached a stage where such small quantities as may remain could easily be removed from the planet if necessary! Technological development has never stagnated. Yucca Mountain should be regarded as a storage facility required for no more than two hundred years at most. We should forget the thousands of years fiction associated with the limited amount of nuclear waste likely to be produced in this century and, not throw away the billions of dollars already invested in Yucca Mountain. 

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