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Yucca Mountain: High-Level Nuclear Waste Site by: Anthony Ricco Urbs/Geog 515:Race, Poverty, And the Environment (Spring 2004) Raquel Pinderhughes Urban & Environmental Studies Programs, SFSU

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yucca mountain high level nuclear waste site

Yucca Mountain: High-Level Nuclear Waste Site

by: Anthony Ricco

Urbs/Geog 515:Race, Poverty, And the Environment (Spring 2004)

Raquel Pinderhughes

Urban & Environmental Studies Programs, SFSU

Public has permission to use the material herein, but only if author(s), course, university, and professor are credited.




This presentation focuses on the environmental, social, and public health issues related to Yucca Mountain, high-level nuclear waste site in southern Nevada. It is designed to:

-Explain what nuclear waste is

-Explain the public health effects of nuclear waste

-Explain why Yucca Mountain was proposed as a storage site for nuclear waste

-Convey the environmental impacts and risks of the site by explaining the problems associated with it

-Convey the Social Justice issues

- Reveal some of thepolitics dealing with Yucca Mountain

nuclear waste defined
Nuclear Waste Defined


how much nuclear waste do we generate
How much nuclear waste do we generate?
  • “As of 2003, the US accumulated 49,00 metric tons of nuclear spent fuel from nuclear reactors. To put this in perspective, if we were to take all the nuclear waste produced to date in the United States and stack it side-by-side, end-to-end, it would cover an area about the size of a football field to a depth of about ten feet.” (ocrwm.doe/gov)


health effects from the exposure of nuclear waste
Health Effects from the Exposure of Nuclear Waste

Nuclear waste contains atoms that are unstable. As these atoms change to become more stable, they give off invisible energy waves or particles called radiation. There are several types of radiation, and all types cause cancer and inherited birth defects.

“Radiation is measured in how strong the dose of radiation, which is usually measured in rems or sievert (100 rem(msu)=1 sievert(sv)). An exposure of 100sv will cause death within days, 10-50sv will cause death from gastrointestinal failure in one to two weeks, and with an exposure of 3-5sv will cause red marrow damage”(Energy and the Environment by John May).

Severe exposures also may results in burns, vomiting, hemorrhage, blood changes, hair loss, increased susceptibility to infection, and death. Low-level exposure symptoms are thyroid cancer, leukemia, breast cancer, skin cancer, and eye cataracts.

Radiation from nuclear waste also causes DNA mutations that change individuals’ genes and can be passed on to future generations. The average dose for a nuclear worker is 50 msv per year.








what is yucca mountain
What is Yucca Mountain?
  • Yucca Mountain, an area in the Southern Nevada desert, was a proposed site for nuclear waste storage over twenty years ago. Since 1987, Yucca Mountain has been the only site looked at for a final permanent depository site for high-level nuclear waste. The Department of Energy plans by the end of the year(2004) to seek an operating license, build, and entomb the nation’s most highly radioactive waste. The DOE planners insist the project will meet safety standards, including the Environmental Protection Agency limits on the amount of radioactivity released from the site for the next 10,000 years. The correct name given to this type of site by the EPA, was a Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, otherwise know as WIPP.


why was yucca mountain proposed as a storage site
Why was Yucca Mountain proposed as a storage site?



problems water contamination
Problems:Water Contamination
  • The Department of Energy’s “Viability Assessment” report showed that water moves very rapidly through the rocks of Yucca Mountain, meaning that if the canisters begin to fail, radioactive waste will get into the groundwater and contaminate the whole water table in the region. The water table is 1,000 feet below the repository.

US nuclear regulatory com.

problems climate change
Problems: Climate Change

“It was wet 10,000 years ago in the Nevada desert where the federal government plans to bury the nation’s nuclear waste, and climate change could make it wetter again in about 600 years.” Geologists and climatogist say there is going to be a change in the climate in about 600 years, so there will be a change in the amount of water delivered to Yucca Mountain.

Known that the climate will change, they cannot predict how wet it could get at the dry Yucca Mountain site during the more than “10,000 years the nation’s nuclear waste is expected to remain radio active there.”


problems air pollution
Problems: Air Pollution
  • Early on, scientists were able to come up with the conclusion that portions of rock in Yucca Mountain will allow radioactive gas to escape as the waste decomposes. The primary gas released would be carbon-14 and it is estimated that “global impact over time will result in 25,000 additional cancers”, as stated by the Nuclear Information and Resource Service.



problems earthquakes
Problems: Earthquakes
  • Earthquakes have also been a big concern with Yucca Mountain. The area were Yucca Mountain resides is “laced with faults”, but scientists say that the faults have not been active in a least one million years. “In 1992, a magnitude 5.6 quake struck not far from Yucca Mountain. The quake registered 2,000 aftershocks”(Spotts, 2002). These aftershocks cause concern because they too can affect the long-term storage. (Spotts, 2002)



problems volcanic activity
Problems: Volcanic Activity
  • Crater Flat, a volcano, is located 10 miles southeast from Yucca Mountain. Crater Flat along with Yucca Mountain is said to be part of a huge volcanic field that is in the area. This field has been relatively quiet recently, but the period could be near the end.


problem transportation
Problem: Transportation
  • There are a lot of problems dealing with transportation of the waste to Yucca Mountain. The main way the nuclear waste would be transported would be by rail or by truck. Accidents can occur during transportation and radioactive waste can contaminate homes, neighborhoods, agricultural areas, and major business areas. Dangerous chemicals can also go into the air and people can ingest them causing lots of different health effects. Waste will be transported from all around the U.S., traveling through dozens of hugely populated metropolitan areas like Denver, Colorado and Sacramento, California.



  • The state of Nevada is fighting the transportation plan in federal court, in attempt to stop the project in Congress. Gary Lanthrum, director of the DOE’s office of National Transportation, testified that since the 1960’s, the Energy Department has safety moved about 3,000 shipments of spent nuclear fuel a combined 1.7 million miles with no injuries because of release of radio-activity. It is said that it will take 10,500 truck trips or 3,000 trainloads to get the nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain.




problem terrorism
Problem: Terrorism
  • Terrorism could also be a concern and a problem with the site and the transportation of the waste to the site, especially after September the 11th. That is the reason why transportation data is kept secret and guards are used during shipments and to guard the site.


worker health issues
Worker Health Issues
  • Nevada’s Senator Harry Reid has called for a shut down of Yucca Mountain until “officials determine whether rock tailings pose a health hazard.” Harry Reid, is “accusing the DOE of rushing to build the repository while failing to protect workers from potentially toxic silica dust.” DOE spokesman Joe Davis stated, “the federal agency has compiled with air safety standards at the site.”


worker health issues18
Worker Health Issues
  • The State of Nevada has authority under the federal Clean Air Act to inspect tailing mounds as a possible air quality hazard. “The states action came after former Yucca Mountain workers blamed lung problems on toxic dust inhaled during tunneling, and the DOE acknowledged that workers might have been exposed to fibrous silica dust.” (RGJ, Reid Calls for Yucca Closure, Ken Ritter)
  • “Estimates are that more than 1,200 employees have been exposed to potentially dangerous amounts of silica dust while working at the site. Inhalation of silica dust can lead to silicosis, a potentially fatal lung disease. Three people have been diagnosed, and one of those has died from the disease.”(citizen.org)


social justice issues
Social Justice Issues
  • Yucca Mountain is called “Serpent Swimming West” in the Shoshone Native Indian language, which grew out of the fact and evidence that the area is one of the most seismically active and is moving. Yucca Mountain is a place of deep spiritual and religious significance to the Western Shoshone and Pauite tribes. It is the place where the Shoshone people have gathered and continue to gather traditionally in the spring and fall to worship. This area is as sacred to these people as the Vatican is to Christians.




social justice issues20
Social Justice Issues

Yucca Mountain is located within “Newe Sogobia, the sovereign territory of the Western Shoshone as recognized in the 1863 Treaty of Ruby Valley.”(www.honorearth.org) “The Nevada Test Site was carved out of their territory and today, the Western Shoshone Nation is the most bombed nations on earth. The United States has detonated more than 1,200 atomic bombs in their territory. High rates of cancer and illness related to atomic fall-out plague the people, who suffer from this historic injustice without any government health assessment, rectification or medical aid”.(greenaction.org)


Western Shoshones Joe Kennedy, left, and Ian Zabarte stand inside the exploratory tunnel in Yucca Mountain with Kami Sue Miller of the Moapa Band of Paiutes. Photo by Gary Thompson.

more social justice
More Social Justice

“Because of their proximity to Yucca Mountain, the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe and the Duckwater Shoshone Tribe near Ely filed requests last year with the Interior Department seeking affected Indian tribe status .“ “But after more than 14 months, the Interior Department has not acted on their requests, casting doubt in the mind of native Americans that they will be treated fairly as the licensing period approaches. (www.death-valley.us)


politics dealing with yucca mountain
Politics dealing with Yucca Mountain
  • The Department of Energy had to get some answers because they were receiving pressure from Congress and also getting a lot of heat from environmentalist groups and the general public. So, the Department of Energy decided to hire a research team to answer the question for once and fore all.
  • After lots of research and nearly $7 million dollars of federal money spent, the research team responded, “Yucca Mountains performance may be beyond the analytic capabilities of any scientific and engineering team.” This meaning that the question cannot be answered, because there is no answer. Only predictions can be made what will happen to the site over tens of thousands of years. They can’t predict things like the changing of the rocks’ chemistry in the mountains, fault activity, volcanic activity, or seepage. “The challenge for modeling Yucca Mountain is equal to…..modeling climate change.”(Spotts,april18,02)


politics continued
Politics Continued
  • “Politicians believe that the question if Yucca Mountain should be a depository site or not, should depend solely on science” say’s Kevin Crowley, Director of the National Research Council’s radioactive waste management board. But then Kevin goes to say, “But in the end, it is our elected officials who must make a judgement on how much uncertainty is acceptable. What is “safe” and “when do we have enough information?” are questions scientists cannot answer.”



politics continued24
Politics Continued
  • The groups and organizations associated with the research team hired by the Department of Energy sent a petition to the Secretary of Energy. The petition was to disqualify Yucca Mountain, because it clearly didn’t meet the guidelines and would fail to safely hold the nuclear waste. Instead of acting on the petition the Department of Energy decided to lobby for changes to The Suitability Guidelines.


politics litigation
Politics: Litigation
  • Just recently, Nevada state Attorney General, Brian Sandoval filed a lawsuit against the federal department of Energy over its proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump in Southern Nevada. “The lawsuit filed in the Federal Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. says Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham and the DOE violated federal law by failing to provide oversight funds to the state and to local governments affected by the proposed dump.” (RGJ, Nevada files new suit over Yucca nuke waste project, 3/1/804) “It’s an outrage and, tragically, it’s just the latest in along record of deception, rule bending and law-breaking in order to make case for an unsuitable site,” Sandoval said. “It defies law, and it strangles our ability to account for the health and safety of Nevadans.”The DOE reduced Nevada’s oversight grant from $5 million to only $1 million at a very critical time in the projects stage. (RGJ, Nevada files new suit over Yucca nuke waste project, 3/1/804)



politics litigation26
Politics: Litigation
  • The state of Nevada is also suing the Department of Energy and National Environmental Protect agency. The big issue is that the DOE unlawfully hid it’s environmental impact analysis from Nevada and Death Valley National Park, and for the first time in NEPA’s (National Environmental Protection Act) history, took final agency action on a major federal project without first issuing a record of decision. This was the worst violation of any in the 31 years NEPA has been in place.
  • The state of Nevada is suing the EPA, because they failed to follow standards of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, the Energy Policy Act, and the Safe Drinking Water Act.


epa concern
EPA Concern
  • A concern brought up by the Environmental Protection Agency, was that there needed to be a way to warn and defer humans in the future from entering the site and releasing the radiation inside of it. So EPA came up with an idea to warn and defer future humans by designing symbolic signs that they would be able to understand. They called these things “Passive Institutional Controls”, which are basically markers and methods designed to warn and inform future generations and civilizations about the location and purpose of the WIPP”(EPA). The EPA then hired two groups of experts, the Futures panel and the Markers panel to examine the issue and come up with a design of effective markers. (Image of an Passive Institutional controls)
  • The design team came up with a number of different located components, each had it’s own message and communication. They included: an information center, two information storage rooms, a large berm, buried warning makers, and archives that were stored all around the site in different locations (EPA).


  • There are few solutions that are possible. Solutions would be to reduce radioactivity levels, and this will decrease the unnecessary shipments. Waste could remain on-site were it was produced. “With time, the wastes’ radioactivity will go down, the overall temperature will cool making it easier to deal with and a little bit safer”(U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission). The companies producing the waste would also be fully aware of the management of the waste, because they would have to deal with it directly. In fact, U.S. senator Richard Bryan introduced a bill, offering economic incentives for utilities to develop on-site cask storage facilities.


personal insight
Personal Insight

I think that Yucca Mountain should never be opened and contain high-level nuclear waste. Obviously it’s not safe to hold the waste for a long period of time. There are still other solutions out there, but only technology will get us these. Scientist should have the last say, not the politician.

We should mandate laws making the companies producing the waste, responsible for their own waste and letting them figure out better ways to deal with it themselves. Make them pay the price for their production, not the taxpayers. Maybe they will realize that their waste is harmful and will reduce production of nuclear waste.

I also think it was smart of the EPA to think about the future generations and to come up with ways to communicate and warn them.

I do think that the waste could and should someway be used to make electricity, but just like waste to energy plants, there is always a by-product and we will still have to do something will that. This huge problem is just like any other environmental problem; it can never be avoided completely, just reduced.


Honor The Earth (April 2004) www.honorearth.com

Green Action (April 2004) www.greenaction.org

Department of Energy (April 2004), http://DepartmentofEnergy.Org

Environmental Protection Agency, (April 2004) www.epa.gov

Nuclear Information and Resource Service (April 2004) http://NIRC.Org

Spotts, Peter (2002) How Safe Is Safe? The Christian Science Monitor Vol. 94, No. 101

Ritter, Ken DRI Staff say climate might not be stable at Yucca , Reno Gazette Journal(March10,2004)

Ritter, Ken DOE drilled about plans for shipping nuke waste to Nevada, Reno Gazette Journal (March 6, 2004)

Ritter, Ken Reid Calls For Yucca Closure, Reno Gazette Journal

Death Valley US www.death-valley.us.come

Energy and the Environment by John Ma y


*For more Information about Yucca Mountain visit the following sites:

Yucca Mountain Project: www.ymp.gov

Nuclear Regulatory Commission: www.nrc.gov

Nevada’s Agency for Nuclear Waste: www.state.nv.us/nucwaste