Dear EarthTalk: I’ve heard that there are plans to build a large repository for nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain in Nevada, but that plans have been slow and are very controversial. Where is our nuclear waste kept now and what dangers does it pose?
—Miriam Clark, Reno, NV
Plans to store the majority of our nation’s spent nuclear fuel and other highly radioactive waste at a central repository underneath Yucca Mountain in the Nevada desert 80 miles from Las Vegas were first hatched in the mid-1980s. But the project has languished primarily due to opposition from Nevadans who don’t want to import such dangerous materials into their backyard. Critics of the plan also point out that various natural forces such as erosion and earthquakes could render the site unstable and thus unsuitable to store nuclear isotopes that can remain hazardous to humans for hundreds of thousands of years to come.
But the Bush administration is keen to jump-start the project and recently submitted a construction license application to develop the facility—which when completed could hold up to 300 million pounds of nuclear waste—with the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). In announcing the filing, Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman said that the facility being proposed can “stand up to any challenge anywhere,” adding that issues of health safety have been a primary concern during the planning process.
But the administration has still not submitted a crucial document declaring how protective the facility will be with regard to radiation leakage. Bush’s Environmental Protection Agency concluded that the facility needs to prevent radiation leakage for up to 10,000 years. But a federal judge ruled that to be inadequate and ordered the administration to require protection for up to one million years. The White House argues that the NRC should press on with its review process and that the standard can be settled on later.