Yucca Mountain Construction Involves Multiple Safeguards

Published July 1, 2009

We are a long way from storing nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, but when we do, the facilities will look much like the underground bunker in a James Bond film, where a nefarious villain hides out while plotting to blow up the world. The facilities will be that hidden, remote, and reinforced.

Even the above-ground facilities will be impressive. The buildings on the surface outside the main tunnel entrance at Yucca Mountain will house the facilities needed to prepare radioactive materials for disposal. Some of these buildings will be the size of sports arenas—400 feet long and several stories high.

Buildings in which nuclear materials are processed will be designed to withstand major earthquakes, tornadoes, and acts of sabotage.

Safe Transportation Program

The United States has an exemplary history of safe transportation of nuclear materials. Since the 1960s the nation has conducted safely more than 3,000 shipments of spent nuclear fuel, traveling more than 1.7 million miles, without any harmful release of radioactive material.

For all shipments of such waste to the repository, the U.S. Department of Energy would use extremely durable, massive transportation casks built according to designs certified by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). To be certified, casks must be designed to withstand severe accidents without releasing their radioactive contents.

Rail has been selected as the preferred mode of transportation because it is well-suited to move larger casks, thus reducing the number of shipments.

Before it is ready for placement in the underground repository, spent nuclear fuel will be put in transportation, aging, and disposal (TAD) canisters within canisters at nuclear plants. The Department of Energy estimates about 90 percent of spent nuclear fuel shipments will arrive at the repository in TAD canisters within shielded transportation casks. The rest will be placed into TAD canisters at the repository before being placed underground.

Intricate Tunnel Construction

Forty-two miles of 18-foot-diameter emplacement tunnels are planned, each about 250 feet away from the next parallel tunnel. They will be lined with perforated, stainless steel plates to prevent rock from falling on the tunnel’s contents.

The tunnels will be excavated in phases. This will allow emplacement operations to begin while construction continues via a separate access tunnel.

NRC requires the waste packages be fully retrievable for at least 50 years after the start of waste placement. Future generations may decide the used nuclear fuel is economically worth retrieving or that additional safety monitoring is needed. Therefore, DOE has designed the repository so that it can be kept accessible for more than 100 years.

Permit Still Needed

Holding things up is the lack of a permit to store spent fuel. The Yucca Mountain license application, more than 8,600 pages long, integrates the results of more than two decades of scientific and engineering work at the site. Even so, more steps are required before a permit can be issued.

The submission of the license application starts a new phase of the process. NRC will review the application and decide whether to grant a license to proceed with construction. But before this, a three-year process of study that is open to the public must take place.

NRC will grant a construction permit only if it concludes the repository would meet all applicable requirements and will protect the health and safety of workers and the public.

Will it ever happen? Do we really need it? I’ll answer these questions next month. You can wait a month. After all, Yucca Mountain has been waiting for 20 years.

Jay Lehr, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is science director of The Heartland Institute.