Comments on Yucca Mountain and Nuclear Energy<sup>1</sup>

David Bodansky

In December 2008 the Department of Energy (DoE) recommended that Congress remove the limit of 70,000 metric tonnes of heavy metal (MTHM) on nuclear waste storage at Yucca Mountain.2,3 TheSuch a proposal is astonishing considering that the Yucca Mountain project was already facing great and perhaps decisive opposition with its capacity capped by statute at 70,000 MTHM. Proposing an expansion, if meant seriously, could be seen as hopelessly quixotic.

In any case, the expansion issue, described in a bulletin of the American Institute of Physics in January 2009, may now be moot.4 A Yucca Mountain project of any size seems unlikely for the predictable future, given the opposition of Senator Reid of Nevada, the Senate Majority Leader, with the now confirmed support of President Obama. In this paper we will review the Yucca Mountain situation, partly for perspective on nuclear waste disposal and partly because the Yucca Mountain project might some day be revived.

Under the Bush administration, which favored going ahead with Yucca Mountain, the DOE had no very good alternative to recommending an expansion. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 (NWPA), as amended, stipulates that “The Secretary [of Energy] shall report to the President and to Congress on or after January 1, 2007, but not later than January 1, 2010, on the need for a second repository.”5 The need for additional capacity is inescapable because the accumulation of spent fuel from commercial reactors will reach the Yucca Mountain legal limit by 2010, and will continue to grow thereafter. The obstacles to establishing a second repository might have seemed even more formidable than those facing a Yucca Mountain expansion, given the difficulties of selecting a site and demonstrating its adequacy.

Another alternative mentioned by the DOE is to continue to store spent fuel at the reactor sites. The fuel remains in the form of solid pellets in assemblies of metal fuel rods. The assemblies are initially put in cooling pools. After about five years, when the heat output is reduced sufficiently, they can be transferred to on-site, air-cooled casks. This dry-cask storage was first utilized in the United States in 1986 and by now is employed at most reactor sites, using durable, NRC-approved casks.6

The on-site alternative could be adopted as part of a coherent waste disposal program or slipped into as a continuation of the present default practice. This path was not favored by the DOE, because it would further delay the fulfillment of the federal government’s obligation to assume responsibility for the spent fuel by 1998 and keep adding to the government’s resulting financial liabilities.

Yet another alternative, not discussed in the DOE report, would be to establish a number of centralized interim storage facilities, to provide dry-cask storage for a century or more. However, the DOE is now barred from developing such a sitesites until a permanent repository is licensed and past private efforts have been thwarted by state and local opposition.

As the policy of the Obama administration becomes clearer, it now appears probable that our actual program for the near future will be on-site storage, perhaps supplemented later by centralized interim storage. Nuclear opponents would surely cite this course as showing that there is no long-term solution for waste disposal. We will return to these alternatives, after a brief review of the Yucca Mountain situation itself.

The performance of the presently conceived (70,000 MTHM) Yucca Mountain project has been analyzed by the DOE in a long series of Total System Performance Assessments (TSPAs). The most recent TSPA was issued in January 2008 (with a March 2008 addendum) in support of the DOE’s June 2008 application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for a Yucca Mountain Repository License. The application is over 8600 pages — the culmination of years of intense study. The NRC’s review is scheduled to take three or four years.

The repository must meet new radiation standards, put forth by the EPA in September 2008.7 The dose to the “reasonably maximally exposed individual” living near Yucca Mountain is limited to 15 mrem/year for the first 10,000 years and to 100 mrem/year for up to 1 million years — both well below the average U.S dose from natural sources of about 300 mrem/year. This standard has been variously criticized as inappropriately relaxed after 10,000 years and, from a different perspective, as misguided in attempting to establish specific standards for times so far in the future. In the recent TSPA, the mean calculated Yucca Mountain doses are always far below these limits.

The physical capacity of the Yucca Mountain repository has been studied by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) and the DOE.8.3 The EPRI study concluded that a closer placement of the waste containers, with increased ventilation, and an expansion of the site area could increase the capacity of the Yucca Mountain repository by a factor of four to nine. From an independent analysis, the DOE concluded that an expansion of “three times, or more” is possible.9

Any serious plan for such an expansion would be greeted with outrage by Nevada’s political leaders. They view as unjust the initial designation by Congress in 1987 of Yucca Mountain as the single candidate site for the entire nation’s commercial spent fuel, even with a ceiling of 70,000 MTHM on the repository size. To now breach that ceiling would add to the insult.

The context of Yucca Mountain decisions has been changed by the Obama administration’s opposition to the repository’s construction, and funding reductions are forcing major reductions in the staff.10 A remaining point of contention is the fate of DOE’s license application.11 Yucca Mountain’s opponents want the DOE to withdraw the application, ending NRC’s study of Yucca Mountain and lessening any chance that the Yucca Mountain project might be revived. Steven Chu, the new Secretary of Energy and a Nobel Laureate physicist, is reported to favor completing the NRC study of the application, with the DOE continuing to respond to NRC questions. At a minimum, the NRC analysis of this major document could have lessons for the planners of a future repository.

The termination of the Yucca Mountain project would be a major victory for Nevada officials and for more general nuclear opponents. The opponents have long sought to use the nuclear waste issue, in the words of Michael McCloskey, thenchairman of the Sierra Club, as a way “to drive a final stake in the heart of the nuclear power industry.”12 Correspondingly, this outcome would be seen as a defeat by the nuclear industry and by others who see nuclear energy as essential to addressing global climate change and the problematic oil market.

Although it gives nuclear opponents a valuable talking point, the full consequences of this defeat are uncertain. Nuclear energy retains strong, albeit not unanimous, support in the scientific community, and this setback may not terminate a nuclear energy revival. The scientific support is reflected, for example, in a statement entitled A Sustainable Energy Future: The Essential Role of Nuclear Energy that was signed in August 2008 by the ten Directors of the U.S National Laboratories, including Dr. Chu.13 The Directors term nuclear energy “the only existing technology with capability for major expansion that can simultaneously provide stability for base-load electricity, security through reliable fuel supply, and environmental stewardship by avoiding emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants.” The statement noted nuclear’s “exemplary safety” and added that it could also contribute to the production of hydrogen and the desalination of seawater.

The statement gave endorsements to both Yucca Mountain and dry cask storage:

Confidence regarding the disposal of waste is needed before the NRC will grant a license for a new plant….In the short term, this confidence can be achieved by continuing the licensing of a geologic repository at Yucca Mountain and enabling the continued interim storage of used nuclear fuel in dry casks and fuel pools.

Dry cask storage is a safe and secure interim solution, either at existing reactor sites or consolidated regionally if future circumstances dictate.

For the near future, with or without new reactors, the storage of spent fuel in on-site dry casks will increase. Although this course may seem an ad hoc stopgap, there are many endorsements of its safety. The Directors’ statement (above) is one example. Similarly, an American Physical Society panel concluded that “There are no technical barriers to long-term safe and secure interim storage of spent nuclear fuel either at nuclear plant sites or at one or more consolidated sites.”14 Importantly, the NRC proposed in October 2008 a revised “Waste Confidence Decision” affirming the safety of spent fuel storage “for at least 60 years beyond the licensed life for operation… in a combination of storage in its spent fuel storage basin and either onsite or offsite independent spent fuel storage installations.”15

The NRC’s position is important because the NRC will issue licenses for new reactors only if it has “reasonable confidence that the wastes can and will in due course be disposed of safely.”16 In the end, however, the contribution that nuclear energy makes to addressing our energy problems will depend on the policies of the Obama administration, which at the moment appears to have unusual freedom of choice.

David Bodansky is Professor Emeritus of Physics at the University of Washington and the author of “Nuclear Energy: Principles, Practices, and Prospects.”


1. For previous discussions of nuclear waste issues in this journal, see David Bodansky, “The Status of Nuclear Waste Disposal,” Physics and Society 35, No. 1, 4-6 (January 2006) and Robert Vandenbosch and Susanne E. Vandenbosch, "The Revised Radiation Protection Standards for Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository," Physics and Society 38, No. 1 (January 2009). [Available at:] For further background see: Robert Vandenbosch and Suzanne E. Vandenbosch, Nuclear Waste Stalemate (Salt Lake City: The University of Utah Press, 2007).

2. The term metric tonnes of heavy metal (MTHM) usually refers to the mass of the original uranium fuel.

3. U.S. Department of Energy, “The Report to the President and the Congress by the Secretary of Energy on the Need for A Second Repository,” Report DOE/RW-0595 (Washington, DC: U.S. DOE, December 2008).

4. American Institute of Physics, “DOE Report Recommended Increasing Nuclear Waste at Yucca,” Bulletin of Science Policy News, No. 6: January 21, 2009. Available at:

5. Office of Civilian Waste Management, Nuclear Waste Policy Act, As Amended (Washington, DC: U.S. DOE, March 2004), Sec. 161. Available at:

6. U.S. NRC, “Fact Sheet on Dry Cask Storage of Spent Nuclear Fuel” (December 12, 2008). Available at:

7. Environmental Protection Agency, 40 CFR 197, “Public Health and Environmental Radiation Protection Standards for Yucca Mountain, Nevada: Final Rule,” Federal Register 73, No. 200, 61256-61289 (October 15, 2008).

8. Electric Power Research Institute, Room at the Mountain, Analysis of the Maximum Disposal Capacity for Commercial Spent Nuclear Fuel in a Yucca Mountain Repository (Palo Alto, CA: EPRI, 2007). Available at:

9. Reference 3, page 3

10. Steve Tetreault and Keith Rogers, “500 more at Yucca face layoffs,“ Pahrump Valley Times (Nye County, NV: February 18, 2009). Available at:

11. Steve Tetreault, “Chu: Keep Yucca Mountain license on track—for now,” Las Vegas Review Journal (Las Vegas, NV: February 18, 2009). Available at:

12. Quoted in Luther J. Carter, Nuclear Imperatives and the Public Trust (Washington, DC: Resources for the Future, 1987), p. 431.

13. Michael Anastasio et al, A Sustainable Energy Future: The Essential Role of Nuclear Energy (August 2008). Available at:

14. Nuclear Energy Study Group of the American Physical Society, John Ahearne and Roger Hagengruber, co-chairs, Consolidated Interim Storage of Commercial Spent Nuclear Fuel (Washington, DC: APS Panel on Public Affairs, 2007) p. 8. Available at:

15. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, 10 CFR 51, “Waste Confidence Decision Update,” Federal Register 73, No. 197, 59551-59570 (October 15, 2008), p. 59551.

16. Ibid, p. 59552.

This contribution has not been peer refereed. It represents solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of APS.