Yucca Mountain in Nevada, the site of a proposed national nuclear waste facility.

Yucca Mountain in Nevada, the site of a proposed national nuclear waste facility.

Nuclear Regulatory Commission/Flickr

Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository passes major hurdle

Remember Yucca Mountain? In another turn in the 27-year odyssey of the proposed nuclear waste repository in Nevada, a key safety evaluation published yesterday by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) gives it a thumbs up. The 781-page report concludes that the proposed site, as described in a 2008 application by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), includes "multiple barriers to isolate radioactivity from the environment" for hundreds of thousands of years, commission staff said in a statement. That should allow it to comply with standards to protect ground water and people in the distant future.

The lengthy document is the second of five assessment volumes to be published on Yucca, which would theoretically hold up to 77,000 tons of highly radioactive waste for up to 1 million years after it would be sealed. Chapters systematically assess the geology of the site and nearby aquifer, how waste will be packaged and stored, and the fate of the “drip shield” that is intended to protect the packaged waste from ground water. “DOE has demonstrated compliance with the NRC regulatory requirements for postclosure safety,” the document states.

The Yucca site was designated in 1987 legislation as a repository and has faced political opposition in Nevada ever since. In 2008, DOE submitted a license application to open the repository, but withdrew it 2 years later. In response, the states of Washington and South Carolina—both large producers of nuclear waste—and others filed suit. Last year, a court ordered NRC to move forward with its review and licensing process.

The Nuclear Energy Institute in Washington, D.C., an industry group, hailed the new report. “This technical evaluation provides strong support for our belief that the Yucca Mountain site is appropriate for an underground repository for used nuclear fuel,” the group said. The Republican-led House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee called the report “game-changing.”

“[T]his is a major triumph of the [scientific] community of repository design and performance assessment,” said nuclear engineering professor Joonhong Ahn of the University of California, Berkeley, in an e-mail to ScienceInsider. “Having said this, there are still numerous hurdles ahead” before Yucca can open, he wrote. In addition to the other three required assessment volumes, he noted, the NRC commissioners themselves must rule on the application. Even if DOE receives the license, he adds, it may decide not to proceed.

For its part, the state of Nevada vowed to continue its long-standing fight against the Yucca plan. “The NRC licensing board has admitted more than 200 Nevada contentions challenging the safety and environmental impacts of the proposed repository, and Nevada is prepared to aggressively prosecute these challenges. It is not apparent that the [NRC report] specifically addressed these and other safety contentions,” the state said in a statement.