Nuclear Waste: The Debate Over Yucca Mountain Continues

Waste storage is one of the biggest problems for the nuclear industry. Again illustrating the problem, the fight over a proposed waste-burial site at Yucca Mountain, Nevada has resumed.

The most recent development came July 1 when federal courts dismissed a lawsuit from Washington State and South Carolina challenging the Department of Energy’s decision to abandon the Yucca Mountain project. The proposed $11 billion project would store nuclear waste from the nation’s nuclear power plants 2,000 feet underground, but it faced stiff opposition and almost a decade of lawsuits from local groups before the government stopped pursuing the project.

Washington and South Carolina are two states with a lot of stored waste and no place to put it. They argued in the recent suit that DOE’s decision to halt the Yucca project was premature. But the saga is not over yet. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) still needs to weigh in on the matter. If it finds that the DOE stopped Yucca prematurely, the legal battles could resume.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev) has been a staunch opponent of burying the nation’s nuclear waste in his state. Reid recently tweeted after the July 1 decision:


Great day for Nevada. Court decision marks imp. win in battle 2 put Yucca Mtn. project 2 rest #YuccaIsDead

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) has been one of the strongest supporters of the Yucca Mountain project. In a June 14th hearing on whether NRC chairman Gregory Jackzo unlawfully withheld information from fellow commissioners (another legal mess in itself), Upton criticized the Obama Administration’s opposition to Yucca:

“We now have an administration that wants to erase the visionary effort launched by President Reagan, casting aside three decades of scientific research, bipartisan collaboration and a fortune invested to start from scratch no matter what the cost or consequences to our national security. We cannot allow our nuclear safety to be compromised by politics.”

Contrary to Upton’s claims of nuclear being a ‘visionary’ technology, environmental groups and leaders find numerous flaws with the site:

“They [environmental groups] say the mountain has much more water in it than was initially believed, which could wear down the canisters that hold the waste, become contaminated, and leach into the surrounding environment.

Plus, they say the area is more seismically active than previously thought and that volcanoes could pose more of a danger than the government is letting on. “Yucca is fraught with problems and I don’t think there’s any way it’s coming back,” said Geoffrey Fettus, a lawyer at the Natural Resource Defense Council.

And so, the multi-billion dollar search for a nuclear waste repository goes on. This expensive, decade-long controversy over “safe” nuclear storage begs the question: Is nuclear really a big piece of the answer to a low carbon future?

— Tyce Herrman, Climate Progress Intern