Spent nuclear fuel is the radioactive by-product of electricity generation at commercial nuclear power plants and high-level radioactive waste is the by-product from production at defense facilities. In 1982, the United States Congress established a national policy to solve the problem of nuclear waste disposal. This policy is a federal law called the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. Congress based this policy on what most scientists worldwide agreed is the best way to dispose of nuclear waste.
The Nuclear Waste Policy Act made the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) responsible for finding a site, building, and operating an underground disposal facility called a geologic repository. The recommendation to use a geologic repository dates back to 1957 when the National Academy of Sciences recommended that the best means of protecting the environment and public health and safety would be to dispose of the waste in rock deep underground.
In 1983, the DOE selected nine locations in six states for consideration as potential repository sites. This was based on data collected for nearly ten years. The nine sites were studied and results of these preliminary studies were reported in 1985. Based on these reports, President Reagan approved three sites for intensive scientific study called site characterization. The three sites were Hanford, Washington; Deaf Smith County, Texas; and Yucca Mountain, Nevada.
In 1987, Congress amended the Nuclear Waste Policy Act and directed DOE to study only Yucca Mountain, which is already located within a former nuclear test site. The Act stressed that if, at any time, Yucca Mountain is found unsuitable, studies will be stopped immediately. If that happens, the site will be restored and DOE will seek new direction from Congress.
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The proposed repository zone will cover 1150 acres, be 1000 feet below the surface of the mountain and 1000 feet above the water table when and if it is completed. By early 2002, 7 billion US dollars had been spent on the project which has made Yucca Mountain the most studied piece of geology in the world.
The tunnel boring machine (TBM) that excavated the main tunnel cost 13 million US dollars and was 400 feet in length when it was in operation. It at its at the South Portal (south entrance) of the facility. The short side tunnel alcoves were excavated using explosives.
2010 is the projected date that the facility will begin to accept waste. This project is widely opposed in Nevada and is a hotly debated topic. The state of Nevada is withholding the renewal of water rights to the facility which has forced the contractor to truck in water. Polls indicate that most Nevadans feel that since the US federal government lied about the safety of the nuclear bomb tests, they cannot be trusted in their current assertions that Yucca Mountain site will be safe. There is also general resentment felt by many Nevada residents over the fact that 87% of the land in Nevada is federal property. The nuclear waste is also planned to be shipped to the site by rail which raises concerns for many people over the possibility of rail accidents, sabotage or even theft by terrorists. Officials counter by pointing to extensive testing of waste containers that show their extreme robustness in the worst situations.
On February 12, 2002 the US Secretary of Energy made the decision that this site was suitable to be the nation's nuclear repository. Nevada's governor had 90 days to object and he did so but the United States Congress overrode the objection. If the objection did stand then the site would have to be cleaned up, closed and a new site chosen.
Yucca Mountain is located within Nye County in south central Nevada. The formation that makes up Yucca Mountain was created by several large eruptions from a caldera volcano and is composed of alternating layers of welded-tuff, non-welded tuff end semi-welded tuff. Tuff has special physical, chemical and thermal characteristics that make it suitable as a choice material to entomb radioactive waste for the projected 10,000 years required for the waste to become safe through radioactive decay.
Like any geologic formation, Yucca Mountain is criss-crossed by cracks and fissures. Some of these cracks extend from the planned storage area all the way to the water table 1000 feet below. It is feared by some that these cracks may provide a route for radioactive waste after the predicted containment failure of the waste containers several hundred years from now. Officials state that the waste containers will be stored in such a way as to minimize or even nearly eliminate this possibility. Even without cracks tuff is slightly permeable to water but due to the depth to the water table it is estimated that by the time the waste enters the water supply it will be safe.
However, the area around Yucca Mountain received much more rain in the geologic past and the water table was consequently much higher than it is today. Critics contend that future climate cannot be predicted to 10,000 years so it is optimistic to assume that the area will always be as arid as it is today. Most geologists that have worked at the site still maintain that the geology will adequately slow the rate of waste seepage to protect water supplies even if the local climate becomes much wetter.
According to Nevada's, Agency for Nuclear Projects, "since 1976, there have been 621 seismic events of magnitude greater than 2.5 within [an 80km] radius of Yucca Mountain." The largest of these earthquakes was in 1992, with a magnitude of 5.6. There are 33 faults in, or near, the repository site.