Yucca Mountain Decision Ignores Science

Published January 21, 2010

Roger Henning, Ph.D., the onsite technical manager at Nuclear & Regulatory Support Services LLC, is a longtime friend and colleague of mine with great experience and expert knowledge of nuclear energy and waste disposal. Recently he sent a thoughtful letter to the Obama administration regarding the president’s decision to table further activity at the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Depository. The letter by Dr. Henning–edited for length–follows as this month’s column on All Things Nuclear.

— Jay Lehr, Science Director, The Heartland Institute

In President Barack Obama’s speech to the National Academy of Sciences on April 27, 2009, he said:

“Under my administration, the days of science taking a back seat to ideology are over. Our progress as a nation–and our values as a nation–are rooted in free and open inquiry. To undermine scientific integrity is to undermine our democracy.”

While the overall tone was the strongest pro-science White House position in years, the actions of the Secretary of Energy on the issue of the Yucca Mountain Project are not in line with this edict.

Geological Advantages

Seldom in history has such a small piece of real estate been subjected to such thorough and comprehensive [study]. And yet the selection of this site has been mired in political controversy from the very beginning.

What has been ignored in the controversy are the extensive scientific analyses conducted in support of a proposed repository, along with both national and international peer reviews. The site has been studied exhaustively for 30 years now, and as much as $10 billion has been expended in scientific research.

Yucca Mountain was one of nine sites initially studied for the first repository under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 (NWPA). Its identification as a potential site followed early work by the U.S. Geological Survey showing that disposal in the unsaturated zone would offer advantages in deep geologic disposal of spent nuclear fuel (SNF) and high-level radioactive waste (HLW).

The conclusion was based on the premise that, because water was the medium that would eventually transport radionuclides away from the repository, a repository site in an environment with limited water would be a benefit to repository performance that was provided by the natural system.

Ideal Site Location

Following the process required by the NWPA, four sites were disqualified based upon scientific investigation results. Yucca Mountain was one of the five sites remaining deemed suitable for site characterization for selection of the first repository site.

U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) documents that compared the sites at that time showed Yucca Mountain to be one of the best performing sites for long-term safety out of the nine sites initially considered.

The location of the underground facility at Yucca Mountain was identified using several factors, including the thickness of overlying rock and soil, the characteristics of the rock that would host the repository, the location of faults, and the depth to groundwater.

The combination of the desert environment and the deep water table with the thick unsaturated zone between the surface and the water table are favorable long-term characteristics of the Yucca Mountain setting.

Moreover, the location of the site significantly contributes to the inherent safety of repository operations. There are no permanent residents within approximately 14 miles of the repository. This area is now secure as part of the government-owned Nevada Test Site and would be considered a restricted area far into the future.

Exhaustive Scientific Study

Yucca Mountain natural barrier systems have been studied extensively, utilizing world-standard scientific research. These studies encompass geology, geophysics, hydrology, thermal and near-field geochemical testing, climatology, and biosphere.

These efforts were further supplemented by numerous laboratory experiments and excavation of similar geologic features both nearby and at natural analogue sites around the world. Through this work, the geology of Yucca Mountain and its ability to safely contain radioactive wastes have become well understood.

Multifaceted Approval

Based upon the results of these exhaustive scientific evaluations, Congress directed the Secretary of Energy to investigate and recommend to the president whether a repository could be located safely at Yucca Mountain. Following tens of millions of hours of research to answer this question, the secretary recommended to the president that Yucca Mountain be developed as the site for an underground repository for spent fuel and other radioactive wastes.

The president approved the recommendation and in July 2002 signed the joint congressional resolution known as the Yucca Mountain Development Act.

More than 2,500 scientists representing not only DOE and its direct contractors but also eight National Laboratories, the U.S. Geologic Survey, and dozens of U.S. universities have worked on the Yucca Mountain Project. The resulting license application was developed by this team of unbiased world-class scientists, engineers, and licensing specialists–not by politicians, anti-nuclear ideologists, or salesmen. The [Nuclear Regulatory Commission] has accepted and docketed the license application as complete and will now engage independent scientists and engineers, regulatory specialists, and administrative judges in the process of reviewing its merits.

In light of this history, the question must be asked: How is killing the Yucca Mountain Project, and nuclear energy in its wake, consistent with the president’s strongly stated position on the role of science in shaping national policy?