Yucca Mountain (Video - DOE) Runntime 12:32 Minutes: The Making of an Underground Laboratory (2004)

Yucca Mountain: The Most Studied Real Estate on the Planet

Entering Yucca Mountain

AT THE MOUNTAIN: Pete Vavricka conducts an underground train. The Nevada laboratory facility at the site currently employs about 2,000 scientists and staff.


The DOE goal for a geologic repository at Yucca Mountain is to isolate nuclear waste from people and the environment for tens of thousands of years.

Cut-away graphic showing infrastructure for Yucca Mountain

Cut-away graphics showing the infrastructure of the proposed high-level radioactive waste repository

Repository tunnel with waste packages


Repository tunnesl with waste packages

Repository tunnels with waste packages

Yucca Mountain Riff

Aerial view of Yucca Mountain riff

map showing location of Yucca Mountain in Nevada

Yucca Mountain is located in a remote desert on federally protected land within the secure boundaries of the Nevada Test Site in Nye County, Nevada. It is approximately 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada. (see map at right)

Yucca Mountain

Click here for a timeline of Yucca Mountain


The begining of Yucca Mountain

In September of 1955, a group of the nation’s most distinguished scientists met at Princeton University under the auspices of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to consider the possibilities of disposing radioactive waste materials on land and to identify the research needed to support such activities. Two years later, these scientists released a report concluding “The Committee is convinced that radioactive waste can be disposed of safely in a variety of ways and at a large number of sites in the United States.” Hence the nation’s search for a land based disposal site was launched.

Q?: Why is Yucca Mountain, Nevada, the federal government's location for a deep geologic repository for the safe storage of used nuclear fuel?

A: The Nuclear Waste Policy Act required an examination of nine sites in six states. Several government agencies and scientific organizations participated in environmental studies and scientific evaluations of these sites. After a 1986 Department of Energy study ranking Yucca Mountain first among these sites, Congress amended the law in 1987 and directed DOE to focus its scientific and environmental investigation entirely on Yucca Mountain.

Since that time all aspects of the geological, hydrological and geochemical environment have been studied, along with evaluation of how conditions might evolve over thousands of years at Yucca Mountain.

The Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA), designated the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada as the only site to be considered for a geologic repository for disposal of spent fuel and high-level nuclear waste. The NWPA also provided for the Affected Units of Local Government (AULG) within the vicinity of Yucca Mountain to oversee and participate in the Yucca Mountain Project. By affording AULG participation rights, Congress sought to increase public confidence in the scientific integrity of the repository program, provide citizens the means to interact with the federal government, and demonstrate a commitment to external oversight.

Esmeralda County is one of ten counties designated as an affected unit of local government (AULG).Esmeralda's location in Nevada

Esmeralda County has been overseeing the site characterization of Yucca Mountain since 1988 even though we were not granted "affected" status by the U.S. Department of Energy until 1991 after successful joint petition with Inyo County, California, to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Esmeralda County's proximity to the proposed repository in neighboring Nye County and its location on a potential highway route that may be used for transportation of high-level radioactive waste and the proposed Caliente rail route for shipping the waste to Yucca Mountain make our county vitally interested in the environmental, health and safety impacts of the project and in the socioeconomic effects arising from siting, construction and operation of the proposed repository. More related information

Yucca Mountain

The Yucca Mountain Project was the primary activity of the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management which was closed down in 2011 due to the Obama administrations lack of funding for the project. For more than 20 years, DOE has studied Yucca Mountain to determine if a potential repository there can isolate nuclear waste in a manner sufficient to protect the health and safety of current and future generations and the environment. Scientists have extensively studied Yucca Mountain's geology, hydrology, chemistry, and climate. Concurrently, experts have designed waste containers and other barriers that would work with the natural environment to isolate the waste in the repository.

Currently, there are thousands of tons of high-level radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel located in government and commercial storage facilities at 131 sites in 39 states throughout the country. These materials could pose a risk to the health and safety of future generations if not properly managed.

The total inventory of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste in the United States could eventually exceed 100,000 metric tons of heavy metal (one metric ton equals 2,204.6 pounds). Some elements of this waste are hazardous for only a few years; others are hazardous for thousands of years.


Yucca Mountain tunnel

Waste Management Background

On March 5th, 2010 Department of Energy (DOE) filed a motion with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to withdraw the application to build and operate Yucca Mountain.

Now pending before the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia are lawsuits brought by Washington, South Carolina, the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, and several other plaintiffs to stop the licensing withdrawal. Most tellingly, the plaintiffs allege violations of the NWPA of 1982, with its detailed prescriptions for repository site selection, approval, and construction licensing.

The Court of Appeals initially called for arguments in the pending litigation to begin this September but has now decided to first await an outcome at the NRC.

Currently awaiting permanent geologic disposal are roughly 64,000 metric tons of spent reactor fuel in temporary storage at 120 operating and shut-down commercial nuclear power reactors in 36 states. In addition, there are the thousands of containers of highly radioactive waste arising from the cleanup of nuclear weapons production sites in Washington, South Carolina, and Idaho.

President Barack Obama cut all funding for the DOEs work towards realizing Yucca Mountain apart from answering questions from the NRC related to the license application.

In 2011 stating lack of funding the Office of Radioactive Waste Management closed their office in Las Vegas. The website was also shut down.

    United States Government Accountability Office

    Yucca Mountain:
    DOE Has Improved Its Quality Assurance Program, but Whether Its Application for a NRC License Will Be High Quality Is Unclear

GAO-07-1010, Aug 2, 2007
Quick View     Summary (HTML)   Highlights Page (PDF)   Full Report (PDF, 33 pages)   Accessible Text
Nuclear power reactors generate highly radioactive waste. To permanently store this waste, the Department of Energy (DOE) has been working to submit a license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain about 100 miles from Las Vegas, Nevada. Although the project has been beset with delays, in part because of persistent problems with its quality assurance program, DOE stated in July 2006 that it will submit a license application with NRC by June 30, 2008. NRC states that a high-quality application needs to be complete, technically adequate, transparent by clearly justifying underlying assumptions, and traceable back to original source materials. more...
Nuclear Waste: Uncertainties About the Yucca Mountain Repository Project
GAO-02-765T, May 23, 2002
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The Department of Energy (DOE) has been investigating Yucca Mountain, Nevada, as a possible repository for highly radioactive nuclear waste. In February, the Secretary of Energy endorsed the Yucca Mountain site, and the President recommended that Congress approve the site. If the site is approved, DOE must apply to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for authorization to build a repository. If the site is not approved for a license application, or if NRC denies a construction license, the administration and Congress will have to consider other options. GAO concludes that DOE is unprepared to submit an acceptable license application to NRC within the statutory deadlines if the site is approved. more...
Nuclear Waste: Uncertainties About the Yucca Mountain Repository Project
GAO-02-539T, Apr 18, 2002
Quick View     Summary (HTML)   Full Report (PDF, 14 pages)   Accessible Text
As required by law, the Department of Energy (DOE) has been investigating a site at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, to determine its suitability for disposing of highly radioactive wastes in a mined geologic repository. If the site is approved, DOE must apply to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for authorization to construct a repository. If the site is not approved for a license application, or if NRC denies a license to construct a repository, the administration and Congress will have to consider other options for the long-term management of existing and future nuclear wastes. DOE is not prepared to submit an acceptable license application to the NRC within the statutory limits that would take effect if the site is approved. more...
Department of Energy: Unethical Conduct at DOE's Yucca Mountain Project
OSI-96-2, Sep 30, 1996
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Congress created the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management within the Department of Energy (DOE) to manage the disposal of highly radioactive waste generated at civilian nuclear power plants. The centerpiece of the disposal program is the Yucca Mountain Site Characterization Project, whose purpose is to determine whether the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada is suitable for permanent disposal of highly radioactive waste. Allegations have been raised about conflicts of interest at the Yucca Mountain Project. A similar issue surfaced in 1987 involving the Office's top management and the award of the project's management contract. This report examines whether DOE properly implemented or adequately enforced federal standards of ethical conduct and DOE ethics regulations at the project. more...
Nuclear Waste: Nevada's Use of Nuclear Waste Grant Funds
RCED-96-72, Mar 20, 1996
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The law prohibits Nevada from using its nuclear waste grant funds for lobbying, litigation, and certain multistate activities. Yet GAO found that Nevada had used this money to advance, on a national stage, its opposition to a repository at Yucca Mountain. In one case, a videotape produced by a contractor was intended to influence legislation pending before Congress. In another case, Nevada's use of grant funds to underwrite a multistate tour in 1993 was inappropriate because the main goal of the tour appeared to be to generate public opposition in other states to the repository project. Until 1992, the Energy Department (DOE) reviewed and approved the state's applications for grant funds and required the state to give DOE periodic progress and financial reports. more...
Independent Evaluation
RCED-94-258R, Jul 27, 1994
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GAO commented on its evaluation of the Department of Energy's (DOE) Yucca Mountain Site Characterization Project. GAO noted that the: (1) scope of its evaluation is limited to selected funding and scheduling issues; (2) evaluation should include a determination of the site's suitability as a radioactive waste repository and the amount of funding and time needed to complete a full investigation; (3) draft statement of work places too much emphasis on evaluating issues other entities have previously reviewed; (4) earlier work should be used as a basis for analyzing potential problems in the program; and and (5) narrow scope of the draft statement of work could result in an assessment that may not address many of the project's major issues.
Nuclear Waste: Quality Assurance Auditors Need Access to Employee Records
RCED-91-7, Jan 18, 1991
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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the Department of Energy's (DOE) efforts to identify and resolve problems stemming from the Privacy Act of 1974's restrictions on maintenance and disclosure of personnel information, focusing on the act's effect on the DOE quality assurance program for contractor personnel involved in the Yucca Mountain, Nevada, nuclear waste repository project. more...
Nuclear Waste: Quarterly Report as of December 31, 1989
RCED-90-130, Apr 30, 1990
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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO provided its quarterly status report on the Department of Energy's (DOE) implementation of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, focusing on the: (1) Nuclear Regulatory Commission's (NRC) ability to implement an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) containment standard for repository licensing; and (2) impact of that requirement on DOE determination of a proposed repository site's suitability. more...
DOE Nuclear Waste: Better Information Needed on Waste Storage at DOE Sites as a Result of Yucca Mountain Shutdown
GAO-11-230, Mar 23, 2011
Quick View     Summary (HTML)   Highlights Page (PDF)   Full Report (PDF, 40 pages)   Accessible Text   Recommendations (HTML)
The Department of Energy's (DOE) Office of Environmental Management (EM) is responsible for storing and managing a total of about 13,000 metric tons of nuclear waste--spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste--at five DOE sites in Colorado, Idaho, New York, South Carolina, and Washington. Also, a joint DOE-Navy program stores spent nuclear fuel from warships at DOE's Idaho site. DOE and the Navy intended to permanently dispose of this nuclear waste at a repository planned for Yucca Mountain in Nevada. However, that plan is now in question because of actions taken to terminate the site. more...
Yucca Mountain Project: Information on Estimated Costs to Respond to Employee E-Mails That Raised Questions about Quality Assurance
GAO-07-297R, Jan 19, 2007
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State of nevada

The state of Nevada issued a report Impacts of the Proposed Yucca Mountain High-Level Nuclear Waste Repository Program which discusses "...the potential to wreak economic, social, and envrionmental devastation on at least 44 states, including Nevada, hundreds of major cities, and thousands of communities across the country through which spent nculear fuel (SNF) and high-level radiactive waste (HLW) must travel." In this impact report Esmeralda County specific impacts are discussed in VOLUME II,  Appendix VII.

According to the National Academy of Sciences, "After four decades of study, geological disposal remains the only scientifically and technically credible long-term solution available to meet the need for safety without reliance on active management.  It also offers security benefits because it would place fissile materials out of reach of all but the most sophisticated weapons builders."

The controversy

Because Congress has banned reprocessing spent fuel, all the nations high-level radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel must be safely stored—for eons. A critical storage issue is the lingering radioactivity of plutonium, neptunium, and other actinides in the spent fuel. The half-lives of these elements are so long that the waste must be stored for more than 10,000 years without significant leakage to the environment. No matter how clever we are in engineering containment barriers— designing storage canisters and tunnels to isolate the waste—eventually, water will seep through the repository, corrode the canisters, dissolve waste radionuclides, and carry them off. When that happens, nature itself—the natural geologic barriers—will have to lend a hand in containing the waste.

The State of Nevada's Position:

The State of Nevada leaders believe the current high-level nuclear waste dump program is fatally flawed, and because of this have found it necessary to oppose the use of Yucca Mountain as a nuclear waste repository for a variety of reasons.

Much evidence shows that Yucca Mountain is not safe for nuclear waste disposal in that it is geologically and hydrologically active and complex.

  • Radioactive substances could leak from the dump and create serious long-term health risks to the citizens of Nevada.
  • Large-scale radioactive releases could occur through a variety of possible scenarios caused by volcanos, earthquakes or hydrothermal activity at Yucca Mountain.
  • Accidents happen. Nuclear waste transportation could result in accidents harmful to Nevada's and the nation's citizens and seriously hurt Nevada's image as an attractive place to visit, live, or locate a business.
  • There are no back-up or alternative sites being evaluated along with Yucca Mountain; thus, there are no other sites for comparison.
  • It is unrealistic to expect DOE to spend $6.5 to $8 billion "characterizing" Yucca Mountain and then simply walk away after serious flaws are found. Besides, State leaders are convinced that the DOE is attempting to build a dump rather than merely "studying" the site, as it claims.

The Yucca Mountain controversy involves fundamental issues of a state's right to determine its economic and environmental future and to consent or object to federal projects within its borders.

Radiation from nuclear waste proposed for Yucca Mountain burial is so intense that anyone with direct contact would receive a fatal dose instantly. Spent nuclear fuel contains tons of plutonium, an extremely toxic byproduct with a half-life of 24,000 years. One-billionth of an ounce, if ingested, can cause cancer or genetic defects.

Politics and economics. Many feel these influences are too great to allow for an objective evaluation of the site. Dump proponents and the nuclear power industry are eager to get the site approved despite significant environmental and health and safety problems. Should the site not work out, the nuclear industry believes it would be set back decades in its goal to build new nuclear power plants.Besides the State of Nevada various organizations and communities object to the proposed Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository for a variety of reasons. Many are concerned with the safety issues involved with transporting high-level radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel through their states and therefore their neighborhoods. The DOE points to the safety record at the Waste Isolation Pilot Program in Carlsbad, New Mexico where low-level radioactive waste has been transported accross the country since March of 1999. The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPP, is the world's first underground repository licensed to safely and permanently dispose of transuranic radioactive waste left from the research and production of nuclear weapons. (see image below)


State of Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects

The Agency for Nuclear Projects operates as part of the Nevada Governor's Office and consists of a Division of Technical Programs and a Division of Planning. The Executive Director is appointed by the governor and serves at the pleasure of the Commission on Nuclear Projects. The seven member Commission advises the governor and legislature on nuclear wastes issues and oversees Agency activities. The Agency oversees the federal high-level radioactive waste disposal program; carries out independent technical, socioeconomic and other studies; works closely with state agencies and local governments on matters relating to radioactive waste; and provides information to the governor, legislature, and any interested parties. The Agency uses a small, central staff supplemented by contractual services for needed technical and specialized expertise in order to provide high quality oversight and monitoring of federal activities, to conduct necessary independent studies, and to avoid unnecessary duplication of efforts and resources.

Other issues (but not all) are addressed at these web site links:

Nuclear Information and Resource Service - NIRS is the information and networking center for citizens and environmental organizations concerned about nuclear power, radioactive waste, radiation, and sustainable energy issues.

Please visit our external links pages for more information and links to in depth studies conducted in regard to the proposed Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository.

US Senate Committee on Envrionmental & Public Works