Life After Yucca


Reviving hope for spent-fuel storage.

Reviving hope for spent-fuel storage.

Fortnightly Magazine - November 2010

When the Obama administration declared the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste project dead in January 2010, plant owners and regulators across the country were outraged—but not surprised.

Since the 1980s, the industry has seen about $7 billion of the Congressionally-mandated nuclear waste fund poured into the Yucca Mountain project, with apparently nothing to show for ratepayers’ money. 1 With about one-third of the fund now spent, the cancellation of DOE’s Yucca Mountain project has further diminished the belief that the U.S. DOE ever will site a repository for spent nuclear fuel.

The reaction from states and localities has both shaped and complicated the path forward in the United States. In Utah, for instance, a proposal in the late 1990s to site an interim storage facility for dry casks containing spent nuclear fuel rods met with fierce local opposition, spearheaded by then-Governor Mike Leavitt. The opposition in Utah continues today, primarily because decision makers are convinced that waste received never would be removed (see “Utah Gov. Leavitt: ‘No Such Thing as Interim Storage’”) .

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Utah’s position and the intense battle over Yucca Mountain in Nevada exemplify the almost universal opposition to such facilities throughout the United States.

However, some rays of hope still shine on this bleak picture of siting failures. One example is found in the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad, N.M. Here, a deep geologic storage site has been operating since 1999, storing transuranic wastes, the radioactive material created during the processing of nuclear weapon fuel. WIPP has received more than 8,000 shipments of such waste, delivered without incident via an accumulated 10 million miles of transportation.

People in the Carlsbad community have supported WIPP because of their familiarity with salt mining, as well as the comprehensive process that DOE followed in siting the facility over a 25-year period. Additionally, Carlsbad values the jobs the facility provides.

Spent-fuel repositories are advancing in other Western countries too, most notably Sweden and Finland. Both countries recently selected sites for permanent, deep geologic storage of spent nuclear fuel, with strong public support in local communities.

What can the industry learn from siting failures and successes to date?

Siting Successes

Although progress on spent-fuel storage in Sweden and Finland provides hope for the U.S. nuclear industry, the conditions are very