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Political opposition

1 September 2022

Yucca Mountain proposed nuclear waste depository (Image: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Dear Editors,
I agree with the views presented by Dobson and O’Leary (Geoscientist 32(2), 2022); Yucca Mountain is as good a nuclear repository site as can be found in the US and in the world, perhaps. Where else can you find easily excavatable host rock (zeolitized, semi-welded ignimbrite) that is 300 m above the present water table and 100 m above the water table based on models for the next glacial period, as well as extremely slow groundwater transport (100,000s years per kilometre) due to the arid climate, and a radionuclide-absorbing host ignimbrite?

However, I would like to add that the failure of the Yucca Mountain Program was largely political. In the early days of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (1982), when several sites were being evaluated, many in Nevada were in favour of a potential repository. In particular, Nye County, Nevada (where Yucca Mountain is located) was extremely supportive of the project (and remains supportive). It is the third largest county in the USA, but has only a tiny population of 45,000, so the community welcomed the income the project would bring to their area. In 1987, the Nuclear Waste Policy Act was amended so that one site – Yucca Mountain – would be developed, but the licence application was extremely delayed. By the time the application was submitted in 2008, Nevadan senators working in Senate under the Obama Administration opposed development of the site. Funding to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was cut and work on the Yucca Mountain Project was stopped by Senate action in 2011. This action was ruled by a judge as counter to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, so work resumed and evaluation of the proposal was completed in 2015 with publication of the Safety Evaluation Report for Yucca Mountain (NRC-NUREG 1949 volumes 2 & 3). At the same time, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission sought alternative disposal sites and Yucca Mountain was ultimately dismissed. With no funds, the project has gone nowhere.

Steve Self
Adjunct Professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Science, University of California, Berkeley, USA. Prof. Self worked for the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission from 2008 until 2017 and was initially part of the team evaluating the US Department of Energy’s licence application to build a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain.

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