Yucca Mountain Ruled Out As Nuclear Waste Site

According to U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Secretary Steven Chu, DOE will abandon its plan to store spent fuel from nuclear reactors and other high-level nuclear waste in an underground repository in Yucca Mountain in Nevada. At a briefing on the proposed 2011 federal budget today in Washington, D.C., Chu announced that DOE will withdraw its application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a license to build the repository. The decision ends a decades-long controversy that began when Congress chose the site in 1987 and politicians and denizens of Nevada began to fight the plan.

“It’s not a major surprise, but until they did this, Yucca Mountain was still by law the repository for high-level nuclear waste,” in the United States, says Thomas Isaacs, a nuclear engineer and expert on nuclear policy at Stanford University. Even before he was elected, President Barack Obama had said that Yucca Mountain was not an option for a nuclear repository, says Isaacs, who was involved in the search for suitable sites for such a repository.

So many things went wrong in the development of the plans for the Yucca Mountain site that, “you can point your finger in any direction and find someone to blame,” Isaacs says. One major problem, he says, was that the federal law mandating the development of the repository was so rigid that it left DOE little flexibility to work with the local community and the State of Nevada. “It was so explicit that it made it very difficult for the program to operate in a manner that was going to build the kind of trust that will last for the decades it takes to complete one of these projects.”

Still, Isaacs says he’s optimistic that a site for a repository can be found, noting that one for lower-level waste—such as contaminated gloves and booties from defense facilities—was successfully sited in Carlsbad, New Mexico. DOE has formed a blue-ribbon panel to consider the issue of managing high-level waste. However, at the briefing, Chu said that the panel would focus on broad waste issues; it is not charged with picking a new repository site.