May 13, 2011 / 7:07 PM / 8 years ago

Q+A: Yucca Mountain nuclear waste controversy

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama’s Blue Ribbon Commission on where and how to store radioactive waste from nuclear power plants on Friday called for temporary storage facilities as an alternative to a controversial waste site in Nevada.

The nuclear crisis at Japan’s Fukushima plant has put new focus on how waste is stored in pools in the United States and the need for a long-term waste storage solution.

Congressional Republicans say the Obama administration’s effort to kill the proposed storage site at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain was politically motivated and wasted billions of dollars already spent on the project.

Here are some questions and answers related to the debate over Yucca Mountain:


The site, 90 miles from Las Vegas, was first studied for a nuclear waste storage site in the 1970s. Congress wanted a secure place to bury spent fuel from reactors, which can stay radioactive for thousands of years.

In 1982, Congress passed a law to establish a permanent underground storage facility by the mid-1990s. The act also added a fee to electric bills to help pay for the site. The law was later amended to identify Yucca Mountain as the only site for consideration.

In 2002, President George W. Bush approved the Yucca Mountain dump site and in 2008 the Energy Department submitted an application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to build it.

The government has spent almost $15 billion assessing Yucca Mountain as a place to store waste in the ground since 1983, collecting $9.5 billion of that from electric bills, the Government Accountability Office said in a recent report.


Nevada residents and politicians are concerned that the facility could pollute water and reduce tourism, and they say the dump is too near earthquake fault lines. They worry shipping nuclear waste across the country would create targets for terrorists.

Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, Democratic leader in the Senate, has never liked the idea. In 2006 he said: “I am convinced the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump will never be built because the project is mired in scientific, safety and technical problems.”


The nuclear industry and experts want a long-term, safer dump than the more than 100 pools currently holding nuclear waste.

Yucca Mountain was chosen because it is in a desert location far from population centers, and because it is surrounded by federal land.

Republicans and some Democrats in Congress want the project restarted and say that shuttering it wasted billions already spent building the facility.


During his presidential campaign in 2008, Barack Obama promised to block the dump. In 2010, his administration asked the NRC, which was conducting a safety review of the site, to pull its license application.

A commission licensing board told the administration that it lacked the authority to declare Yucca off limits for the dump. The energy department appealed the decision to the full regulatory commission.

The NRC has not yet resolved its final position on the license issue but has stopped its work on the project.

The nuclear industry sued the Energy Department to suspend a fee mandated by the federal government for managing radioactive waste, and Republican lawmakers in Congress have launched a probe into the decision to stop work on the site.

A GAO report concluded that social and political pressure, not technical problems with the site, led the administration to shutter the project. (For the report, click on

The report called for an independent regulator to oversee nuclear waste management and said that restarting the project or finding a new location could be expensive.


Nuclear waste from the nation’s 104 nuclear plants is stored at more than 100 sites around the country.

Most spent fuel rods are stored under at least 20 feet of water in pools near reactors. Fuel that has cooled can be placed in a steel, cylindrical casks, surrounded by inert gas, but it has to have been cooled for least five years. (For a map of U.S. waste sites click on

The nuclear regulator believes spent fuel can be safely stored for 60 years, giving most reactors about 120 years of safe storage.


The Energy Department appointed the blue ribbon commission to look at options. It is slated to deliver a draft report by July with final recommendations early in 2012.

France, the United Kingdom and others recycle spent nuclear fuel. The United States developed fuel reprocessing technology decades ago, but deemed it too expensive.

Other proposals include building reactors that can convert nuclear byproducts into other, less harmful waste and using nanotechnology or magnetic fields to separate waste elements.

Reporting by Emily Stephenson

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