Regulators release report on viability of nuclear waste storage at Yucca

But it doesn't mean the Nevada site is safe — or even back on the docket.


Reid Blasts Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Approval Of Yucca Nuclear Waste Site,” blared a headline last week at Law360, a news site devoted to the legal profession, referring to Nevada's senior Senator, Harry. “NRC Deems Nuclear Waste Storage at Yucca Mountain Safe,” announced Power, an electrical industry trade magazine. Reps. Fred Upton, R-Mich., chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and John Shimkus, R-Ill., chair of the Environment and the Economy Subcommittee, issued a joint statement calling some recent news out of the federal agency that regulates nuclear power “game-changing.”

None of the ballyhoo was warranted, however; the proposed repository for spent nuclear-reactor fuel at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, 100 miles west of Las Vegas, remains in the same state it was in 2009, when President Obama, hewing to a campaign promise, ordered work at Yucca Mountain to stop. The project, which has cost taxpayers nearly $16 billion so far, has not been approved or declared safe; it has not been revived or resuscitated. It has not even been released from the decades-long purgatory it was born into in 1987, when Congress, rushing to finish up before the Christmas holiday, chose it as the sole potential site for high-level waste disposal, having no better reason than that the state of Nevada had so little political power. (The decision was forever after known as the “Screw Nevada Bill”).

Yucca Mountain hole
Boring a hole in the tuff: The proposed nuclear waste facility at Yucca Mountain before the Obama administration stopped work on it in 2009. Photo courtesy of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission
What did happen is that, on October 16, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission published Volume 3 of a five-volume evaluation of the facility’s construction license application. It was not news, really, so much as policy in perpetual motion, like residual brain activity in a body whose heart has stopped. The Obama administration may have had the authority to silence the drills and end the spelunking tours of Yucca Mountain, but the courts in 2010 still denied the Energy Department's request to withdraw the license application, on the grounds that Congress stipulated the terms of the licensing process in the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act, and only Congress can change that law.

Which means that the 17-volume, 8,600-page construction authorization license application that the Bush administration's Energy Department, managed to submit to the NRC — just under the wire in June 2008 — gets a full treatment by the Obama administration's regulators. Even if they have to proceed with a skeleton crew, funded at only a 10th of the agency’s ask, and untethered from any concrete, real-world goal. Volume 1 of the safety evaluation report came out in 2010, offering a general description of the project as laid out in the licensing application. The rest will come out next year.

“Publication of Volume 3,” reads the NRC’s statement, “does not signal whether the NRC might authorize construction of the repository.” High-level waste from commercial reactors will still remain in cooling pools and dry casks at the plants that produce it, a temporary fix that regulators have deemed adequate for now. What the 781-page document does, instead, is review the construction license application for a Yucca Mountain repository and determine whether the Energy Department’s Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management did a fair job evaluating its characteristics.

Did the authors of the license application, for instance, adequately consider the question “what can happen?” to the waste, taking into account geology, earthquakes and the potential corrosion of metal barriers that might allow radiation to escape? Did they consider the consequences if, 200,000 years from now, unsuspecting humanoids enter the facility and open a waste package? Did they account for “igneous disruption,” given that Yucca Mountain “lies in a region that has experienced sporadic volcanic activity in the last few million years?”

Yes, they did all of that, Volume 3 concludes. But its words could comfort no one in the thought that nuclear waste belongs in Yucca Mountain. Instead, it confirms what even many nuclear boosters admit: Yucca Mountain’s porous volcanic rock would need the significant reinforcement of engineered barriers to contain waste.

“Yucca Mountain is an oxidizing environment,” current NRC Chairman Allison Macfarlane, told me back in 2009, while she was still in the academic world to which she will soon return. “Spent nuclear fuel is not stable in the presence of water and oxygen.” That has not changed with the current NRC evaluation of the facility’s license application. It never, ever will.

Judith Lewis Mernit is a contributing editor at High Country News and is based in Southern California.