On the Road to Nowhere: States Confront the Challenges of What Do with the Growing Amounts of Nuclear Waste

By Hendrick, Scott; Lewis, Claire | State Legislatures, May 2013 | Go to article overview

On the Road to Nowhere: States Confront the Challenges of What Do with the Growing Amounts of Nuclear Waste


Hendrick, Scott, Lewis, Claire, State Legislatures


One thousand feet under a rocky ridge in southern Nevada lies a five-mile-long, 25-foot-wide U-shaped tunnel. Known as Yucca Mountain, the passageway was supposed to house the bulk of the nation's used nuclear fuel and hottest radioactive military waste. Instead, it sits empty--a glaring reminder of how difficult it is to find a permanent resting place for some of the world's most dangerous materials.

Meanwhile, utilities (and indirectly their ratepayers) continue to pump money--$27 billion since 1982--into a fund that has remained untouched since plans for Yucca Mountain were shelved in 2010.

And the waste piles up. More than 68,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel have been produced by the nuclear energy industry, the bulk of which sits at operating or shuttered nuclear power plants in 35 states. The military has generated about 13,000 metric tons of high-level waste. And an additional 2,000 metric tons are added each year.

Local Cooperation Crucial

The story of Yucca Mountain is a cautionary tale about what can happen when the federal government imposes its will on a state without its cooperation or consent. Despite objections by many in Nevada, Congress officially designated it a future nuclear waste repository in 1987 and began to study and develop it--at a cost of more than $15 billion.

Nevada claimed its sovereign rights were being violated and launched a series of legal attacks on the project, challenging the federal government's environmental, public health and safety standards.

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But it was President Obama's decision to withdraw the site's operating license application--with support from U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada--that ultimately derailed the project. Although the decision is being challenged in court, the prospects of Yucca Mountain ever receiving waste at this point are dim.

"What the demise of the Yucca Mountain project tells us is that the federal government needs to work with states and local communities during the entire process of siting, building and operating a nuclear waste repository," says Tennessee Representative John Ragan (R).

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That's also the conclusion of The Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future, charged by President Obama to find a new way to manage nuclear waste. In 2012, the commission made eight major recommendations to Congress and federal agencies. The first was that the federal government establish a consent-based approach to finding places to store waste.

Perception Problem

Finding communities that will take the nuclear waste is not the most difficult part of the problem. The jobs, federal money and other economic benefits that follow a nuclear waste site make it attractive to many.

The most significant hurdle can be convincing others in the state that the benefits of accepting nuclear waste outweigh the potential risks."Finding a consenting community is merely a first step," wrote William Alley, the former chief of the Yucca Mountain waste storage site, in a recent opinion piece in New Scientist."The harder part is getting everyone else to sign on."

In addition to Nye County, Nev., where local officials were strongly in favor of the Yucca Mountain project, Oak Ridge, Tenn., and the Skull Valley Band of the Goshute Nation in Utah, also saw local efforts to open nuclear waste sites scuttled by statewide opposition.

But not all attempts to site nuclear waste disposal facilities have failed. The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) outside Carlsbad, N.M., has stored protective gear, tools and other long-lived radioactive debris (known as transuranic or TRU waste) from the military's nuclear weapons research and production facilities since 1999. The waste is kept 2,150 feet below ground in the Salado Formation, a giant salt deposit that stretches from northern Mexico through southeastern New Mexico and into west Texas. …

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