Life After Yucca


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’”).

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 different. Namely, the amounts of wastes produced in Scandinavia are small compared with those in the United States, and the countries approach the problem in different ways. In Sweden, the government established a private corporation, the Swedish Nuclear Fuel and Waste Management Co. (SKB), in the 1970s. Over a period of years, SKB studied numerous potential sites, working closely with local communities and officials throughout the process. Communities were asked to bid to host a repository in deep bedrock for spent nuclear fuel. This collaborative effort contributed to a positive reaction from citizens. Opinion polls in Sweden showed about 85-percent local support for nuclear-waste storage, even from communities that lost the bid, and 75 percent of respondents saying the issue should be resolved now, rather than leaving it to future generations. SKB ultimately selected two sites—an interim facility near Oskarshamn and a final repository in Forsmark.2

Meanwhile, Finland is siting a permanent facility on Olkiluoto Island, using a meticulous technical and engineering process, designed even to anticipate the return of the ice age, and to endure for 100,000 years. A Finnish government decision on the final project is expected in 2012.3 Of course, nuclear power generally is viewed much more favorably in Europe than it is in the United States. For example, France gets about 80 percent of its power from nuclear reactors, and as a consequence France has the cheapest electricity prices and best air quality in Europe. In Germany it’s more controversial, with public uncertainty about siting criteria for spent fuel, though about 25 percent of the country’s power is nuclear-generated. Germany initiated a program in the 1990s to eliminate nuclear power, a strategy now being reconsidered.4

In the United States, despite the Yucca Mountain halt, there are some positive experiences with local community acceptance. For example, closure of the Fernald nuclear site in Ohio in 1989, where 500 million pounds of uranium was purified, led to a controversy over the off-site shipment of wastes. This was resolved through a participatory process that led to local approval of retaining material on-site. 1.3 million tons of the “most contaminated” waste was shipped to waste-facility sites in three states, while 4.7 million tons were encapsulated on site in a landfill designed to last 1,000 years.5 The remainder of the site was opened as a 1,050-acre nature preserve in 2008.

In another example, at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington, site of the largest environmental cleanup in the world, early controversies about pollution of the Columbia River watershed and intense public hearings eventually led to agreements and local community acceptance of storage of some wastes. The broadly-based and representative Hanford Advisory Board actively participates in site remediation work today, under a tri-party agreement, with broad areas of review. On-site waste treatment plant and vitrification technologies are among the areas being scrutinized.

Also, today there are 103 reactors operating at 64 sites in 31 states throughout the United States. These facilities have long-established relationships in their communities, and most operate with little or no controversy. Such plants provide jobs and tax revenues, and their generally positive safety track records during decades of operation have ensured strong local support for continued operation.

Where spent fuel is stored at plant sites, impacts are monitored closely. At some locations, the owners of 13 plants undergoing decommissioning seek to move stored waste elsewhere. These are among the locations pressing for permanent repositories.6

Finally the WIPP in Carlsbad, N.M., has been operating for more than a decade, and it remains the only permanent geologic disposal site anywhere in the world for transuranic wastes—which represent less than 1 percent of the world’s radioactive wastes. The evolution of that site demonstrates a thoughtful public and technical process.

WIPP: Success in New Mexico

The reasons for the WIPP’s success are complex, but they illustrate important elements in a successful siting strategy.

First, the community became aware in the mid-1970s that local potash mines had become uncompetitive, which threatened a major source of jobs. Local officials looked for alternative uses of a nearby salt dome, knowing that such a site is prima facie evidence of lack of water intrusion over millions of years. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) studies from the 1950s designated salt domes as possible storage sites for spent nuclear fuel. Also, with weapons centers in Albuquerque, local leaders in Carlsbad became aware of the need for permanent storage of nuclear wastes. This led to the long and complex process leading to the creation of WIPP. The plant now employs about 1,000 people, one-third of the local labor force.

An interview with John Heaton, Carlsbad’s representative in the state legislature, indicates strong community support for the WIPP facility and possibly even for long-term storage of spent nuclear fuel (see “Building the WIPP”).

This support notwithstanding, the state subjected the facility to close scrutiny throughout its development. A bill in the legislature in 1975 to block WIPP failed, but led to the creation of a Nuclear Radiation Waste Committee to oversee the process. Through that process, the state government became comfortable with the project. Now, New Mexico is working with the U.S. DOE under a consultation and cooperation agreement, in which DOE reports health and safety issues to the New Mexico attorney general.

The state also has regulatory authority over Resource Conservation & Recovery Act (RCRA) wastes and water-quality issues, which gives it a key permitting role in siting related facilities.

There has been some discussion about the potential of expanding the WIPP to handle spent nuclear fuel, considering the great storage capacity of its extensive salt-dome formation.7 At the state level, however, Secretary of the New Mexico Environment Department Ron Curry told Fortnightly that widespread opposition in New Mexico prevents expanding the role of the WIPP beyond its current mission of storing transuranic wastes, because of technical issues about such storage. He noted that the site is surrounded by oil and gas fields; that it’s underlain by salt brine that theoretically might someday infuse the site; and that greater heat from higher-level radioactive wastes, such as spent fuel, might cause deterioration of the salt dome.

Transuranic wastes differ from spent nuclear fuel in that they are irradiated for very short periods of time in a reactor—10 to 14 days vs. 4.5 years for fuel rods. Since weapons-produced wastes have much less radiation than spent nuclear fuel does, with much lower heat content, their impact on a salt repository is much smaller. Such wastes are shown to be acceptable in studies at Sandia National Laboratories and elsewhere. Whether greater heat from spent nuclear fuel would preclude storage in salt merits further study. At a workshop in May 2010, Tom Pfeifle and Frank Hansen of Sandia indicated the lab is researching the issue.8

Others, such as State Rep. Heaton and Mayor Bob Forrest of Carlsbad, say the WIPP should remain on the table for consideration for future storage uses. They suggest the following considerations:

• If the heat studies by Sandia are favorable, WIPP could handle spent nuclear fuel. Studies show that after 90 years spent nuclear fuel dissipates to a level of radioactivity comparable to transuranic wastes;

• New Mexico and the DOE need to see the performance of salt dome storage of transuranic waste over the next 10 to 20 years to consider expansion;

• Expanding WIPP would be much less costly than building the planned repository at Yucca Mountain. Costs of Yucca Mountain over its lifetime are estimated to approach $100 billion.9

• Funding for such an expansion could be raised by transferring the $750 million collected each year from fees on operating power plants into a trust fund, or transferring from funds already collected during the past several decades in the nuclear waste fund.

The Fernald Experience

Different approaches to siting have produced different results in the United States.

Cynthia C. Kelly, president of the Atomic Heritage Foundation, formerly director of the Office of Public Accountability at DOE in the 1990s, recalls several success stories of nuclear waste disposition using a collaborative process. Kelly particularly acknowledges the work of Professor James Fishkin of Stanford on what he calls “deliberative democracy” as a path forward for the process of siting controversial facilities.

Because the public view of radiation risks usually is disproportionate to the real risks, Fishkin has applied a deliberative polling process, in which a panel is given access to information about an issue, discusses the information and then re-votes on the issue. Fishkin has documented that such a process can successfully bring public opinion more in line with the real risks.

Such a collaborative process can bring about a more rational, cost-effective solution—as it did at a contaminated site in Ohio.

At the Fernald Feed Materials Production Center, near Cincinnati, uranium ore was purified, prior to making weapons. In 1989, the plant was closed and cleanup of the site began after decades of use and apparent indifference to environmental and safety issues.10 In the earlier years, weapons production preempted all other concerns. There was widespread dispersion of waste materials, some concentrated in tanks and others spread around the grounds.

As cleanup began, the community was adamant about shipping all wastes to remote areas with sparse populations, like Nevada.

At about the same time, federal policy shifted with regard to the participation of affected communities. EPA was given DOE’s former role in regulating nuclear radiation. In August 1993, the agency set up site-specific advisory boards at 12 major sites and began a more collaborative approach to managing nuclear sites. DOE cooperated with EPA in implementing this approach. The local panel at Fernald began to review the options of shipping vs. storing the wastes on site. They asked questions: How clean was necessary? Where should wastes go? What would be the risks and financial costs of shipping? What would be the effect on communities where waste was to be stored?

Members of the Fernald Advisory Group visited their counterparts at the Nevada Test Site, developed personal relationships with them and came to understand their concerns. When they looked at the billions of dollars it might cost to clean and ship all the wastes, and the increased accident risks, the Fernald group changed its positions. They agreed to allow some wastes to remain on-site, as long as the highest level wastes were shipped elsewhere. This was a dramatic turnaround.

Early estimates were that the costs to remove all of the wastes at Fernald would be about $12 billion. By 2006, the actual cost was $4.4 billion. The cleanup was completed 12 years earlier than forecast. On-site disposal of 1.35 million cubic yards in a secure landfill had occurred by 2003, while 31 million pounds of uranium waste had been removed to Texas and Utah. In 2008, the Fernald Preserve was formally opened for public use.

Some slightly contaminated laboratory and office wastes were shipped from Fernald to Clive, Utah, 80 miles west of Salt Lake City, where they are stored by EnergySolutions, a private, commercial, for-profit business licensed to dispose of Class A low-level radioactive wastes (LLRW). Its Clive facilities and its operations are regulated by 13 local, state, and federal agencies. Wastes are disposed in a landfill. A proposal for EnergySolutions to handle Class B and Class C wastes, less than 1 percent of current wastes, is in process.11

As at the Fernald site, there was controversy over disposal of wastes at Hanford, the focus of the largest environmental cleanup worldwide. And as with Fernald, public panels were established to accommodate a collaborative process. Initially, wild hearings featured radical groups making dramatic presentations. But as the hearings progressed, more rational consideration of the facts eventually led to substantive review of the issues and local support for an agreement with DOE on a path forward. The Hanford Advisory Board is central to the decisions about waste disposition on and off site.

The Utah Experience

In Utah, the electric utility industry approached a local Indian tribe, the Goshutes of Skull Valley, after unsuccessful attempts to negotiate with an Indian tribe in New Mexico for an interim spent-fuel waste-storage facility. The industry signed an agreement for the interim storage of dry fuel casks on the Goshute reservation on Dec. 26, 1996.12 The State of Utah, during the administration of Gov. Mike Leavitt, strongly and successfully opposed the project. Apparently as a result of this opposition, two agencies within the U.S. Department of the Interior—the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Land Management—rejected filings related to the project in September 2006.13 However, a recent federal court decision has re-opened the case, overturning the Interior Department’s decisions and ordering their reconsideration.14

Opposition to the project has continued in Utah from Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) and the five members of the state’s Congressional delegation in Washington. Among the objections to the Skull Valley site, opponents argue it’s located too close to an Air Force test and training range—even though the existing EnergySolutions site at Clive is actually closer to the range. But more broadly, opponents express a strong belief that once wastes would be shipped to Utah, they’d never be removed. The delegation argues that risks of storage should be borne by the states that have benefited from nuclear power, at least until a permanent repository is built.

Unlike the success stories at WIPP, Fernald and Hanford, no significant federal, state or local negotiation process has been undertaken that might resolve the conflict over Skull Valley. Although the tribe favors the project, because of the financial benefits it would obtain, progress seems unlikely without greater involvement of the broader community and the state.

The Path Forward

The examples of success and failure suggest some general principles essential to the future siting of spent nuclear fuel facilities—whether for interim or permanent storage.

Incentives: The WIPP demonstrates the importance of economic incentives in siting. In Carlsbad, jobs were critically needed for its survival as a community. The facility now employs about one-third of the local work force, and the federal government provided $300 million over 15 years for highways. The Carlsbad experience shows that such incentives as good jobs and contributions to infrastructure can persuade a community to welcome facilities—and perhaps to bid on them as they did in Sweden—as an alternative to the federally mandated process that failed at Yucca Mountain.

A series of financial incentives was offered in Nevada to make the Yucca Mountain project more palatable. But even if other complex issues could be overcome, much greater incentives would be needed to gain state support, particularly given the permanent nature of the planned facility.

Local involvement: Local voices are tremendously important—especially because public perceptions of nuclear risks are disproportionate to actual risks. Education can lead to more rational conclusions, as Stanford Prof. Fishkin demonstrated in his work on deliberative democracy. Such collaborative processes will be instrumental to the success of future facility siting.

Likewise, DOE found that when it formed and listened to local advisory boards, relationships with the local community vastly improved, and more cost-effective solutions emerged to address major problems. At Fernald, rather than having to spend billons to ship wastes to Nevada, local storage of wastes was accepted at much more reasonable costs and risks.

At the WIPP, local advisory boards gave the community the opportunity for participation and gaining knowledge over a long period of time, which allowed Carlsbad to accept the only permanent radiation waste-storage facility in the world. Although local boards were funded by DOE, they had control over what they learned and where they got input. This gave the information greater credibility.

Local familiarity with nuclear power also is very helpful. The island in Finland where a deep geological repository is being built also houses a nuclear-power complex. The small population on the island is comprised of people who already are comfortable with nuclear properties, and who welcome the job opportunities they provide. Similarly in Sweden, local public affirmation and support were key criteria in selecting the country’s two repository sites.

Local Control: Power sharing is extremely important in the planning process. New Mexico has the power to write permits, which gives the state ongoing authority and oversight in the operation of the WIPP.

Further, inviting communities or states to bid for a repository, as Sweden has done, presents petitioners with a reason to realistically consider the appropriateness of the location, and to compete for the jobs and potential infrastructure and community incentives that would derive from an on-site repository.

Industry Funding: A single new nuclear power plant costs $9 billion to $10 billion to build. By comparison, cleanup of a site like Hanford costs $12 billion, and the Yucca Mountain project initially was estimated to cost $57.5 billion in 2001. As efforts proceed toward building interim and permanent repositories, the industry and the federal government will gain a clearer understanding of the technical requirements and monetary costs of storing spent fuel from existing and new nuclear facilities. Incorporating such costs into the capital costs of facilities will help demonstrate that waste disposal is considered an integral part of the cradle-to-grave lifetime of a nuclear facility.

Resolving America’s spent-fuel dilemma will require dedicated leadership at all levels of the decision-making process—and also the willingness to consider innovative approaches and solutions (see “Plan D for Spent Nuclear Fuel”). Potential nuclear-waste storage sites face extraordinarily complex challenges, in terms of technical analysis, engineering and finance, as well as public perception and acceptance. But experiences at nuclear waste sites already have demonstrated what practices and approaches are doomed to failure—and which ones have at least a chance of succeeding.



1. See DOE Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, Office of Business Management, Summary of Program Financial & Budget Information as of Jan. 31, 2010, Program Spending History Table, monies expended 1983-2009.

2. In Sweden, SKB, Swedish Nuclear Fuel and Waste Management Co., is tasked with managing Swedish nuclear and radioactive waste in a safe way. (See

3. See article, Finland’s Nuclear Waste Solution, Scandinavians are leading the world in the disposal of spent nuclear fuel, By Sandra Upson, December 2009, IEEE

4. On Sept. 30, 2010 Angela Merkel’s cabinet approved a new energy plan that extends the deadline for shutting down nuclear plants by an average 12-year contract extension. 17 nuclear plants supply 25 percent of power in Germany.

5. See Fernald Web site Ohio EPA,

6. See NRC list of 13 nuclear power plants going through decommissioning,

7. See article in The New Mexico Independent, April 1, 2009, “If Carlsbad Mayor Bob Forrest has anything to say about it, trucks and trains from around the country could be carrying used nuclear fuel rods, and other hot radioactive material, on New Mexico interstates and rail lines near major population centers to oil and gas and potash country in the southeast part of the state.”

8. U.S.-German Workshop on Salt Repository Research, Design, and Operation/ Disposal of High-Level Radioactive Waste in Bedded Salt held in the United States, Sandia National Laboratory, May 2010.

9. “Yucca Mountain cost estimate rises to $96 billion,” World Nuclear News (Aug. 6, 2008).

10. John Applegate [first chairman of the Fernald SSAB], “Beyond the Usual Suspects: The Use of Citizens Advisory Boards in Environmental Decisionmaking,” Indiana Law Journal, Summer 1998, *903.

11. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Dockets 11005710 and 11005711.

12. “Skull Valley Goshutes/PFS Timeline,” Public Citizen,

13. On Sept. 7, 2006, two agencies of the U.S. Department of the Interior issued two decisions blocking the Skull Valley Private Fuel Storage (PFS) project. The Bureau of Indian Affairs disapproved a proposed lease of tribal trust lands to PFS, concluding there was too much risk that the waste could remain at the site indefinitely, among other objections. Additionally, the Bureau of Land Management rejected the necessary rights-of-way to transport waste to the facility, concluding that a proposed rail line would be incompatible with the Cedar Mountain Wilderness Area and that existing roads would be inadequate. Contending that the Interior Department was motivated by political pressure from the State of Utah, which strongly opposed the facility, the Skull Valley Band of Goshutes and PFS filed a federal lawsuit July 17, 2007, to overturn the decisions. Skull Valley Band of Goshute Indians and Private Fuel Storage, LLC, v. James E. Cason et al. (U.S.D.C.-Utah, Central Division 2007); and also Bureau of Indian Affairs, Record of Decision for the Construction and Operation of an Independent Spent Fuel Storage Installation (ISFSI) on the Reservation of the Skull Valley Band of Goshute Indians (Band) in Tooele County, Utah, Sept. 7, 2006.

14. Federal Circuit Court Judge David Ebel ruled in July 2010 that the Interior Department’s decisions blocking the Skull Valley project were “arbitrary and capricious.” Skull Valley Band of Goshute Indians and Private Fuel Storage v. Laura Davis (U.S. Department of the Interior), U.S.D.C.-Utah, Civil Action No. 07-cv-0526-DME-DON (July 26, 2010).