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Office of Civilian Nuclear Waste Management

Dateline: 01/22/98

Since about 1943, nuclear reactors have been producing power, defense materials, and tons and tons of deadly, radioactive waste. Until 1982, no specific plan for disposal of this waste existed. As result, mistakes were made. We’ll be cleaning up the Hanford Site for decades to come.

In 1982 Congress responded to the growing nuclear waste crisis by passing the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA). The NWPA required that costs of nuclear waste disposal be born by whoever produces it and created the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management (OCRWM) under the Department of Energy. OCRWM thus became one of those low-profile federal units with a very high-profile job. OCRWM has to collect and safely store all waste produced by all nuclear power generating facilities in America.

Please get rid of this stuff
According the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, the mission for OCRWM is, “...the timely disposal of the Nation’s nuclear waste in a geologic repository, in a manner that protects the health and safety of the public and workers, and maintains the quality of the environment.”

Now, “geologic repository” is government-speak for “a place to bury it.” And, “it” comes in three flavors:

Commercial Spent Fuel - comes from our 73 nuclear power plants in 34 states. It’s mainly spent fuel rods, but it could include “non-fuel materials” which is anything that takes radiation during the power generation process.

[Nuclear fuel is a pencil eraser-sized, ceramic looking pellet of uranium. Each little pellet produces as much energy as about one ton of coal. The pellets are stacked up and sealed in metal tubes about 15 feet long. About 200 tubes are bundled together to make the actual fuel assembly used in the reactor. The fuel assemblies are replaced after about 18 months in the reactor, but continue to give of dangerous levels of radioactivity for thousands of years.]

DOE Spent Fuel - comes from defense-related reactors, naval (ships and submarines) reactors, research reactors, and the Unit 2 Reactor at Three Mile Island. DOE spent fuel contains high levels of heavy metals. Most notably, highly enriched uranium and plutonium.

High-level Waste - is highly radioactive spent fuel from both commercial and defense-related reactors. High-level waste is packed in metal canisters at the reactor site before shipment and delivery to the geologic repository. Though it can no longer be used to produce power, high-level waste remains so toxic that it can often be handled only by remote control. Once buried deep underground at the geologic repository, it will remain radioactive for thousands of years. As a result, the location and native geology of the repository must absolutely prevent the waste from seeping into the surrounding earth -- forever.

Waste storage canister - about 15 ft. long and 5 ft. in diameter - holds about 2 tons

So, where shall we put it?
Once the OCRWM team identified what had to be buried, a much tougher issue came up -- where? Where in the United States shall we, may we, build the “geologic repository”? As you can imagine, the issue of burying untold tons of nuclear waste is sort of like household garbage collection on steroids -- everybody wants you to pick it up, nobody wants you to put it down.

By 1983, DOE had selected nine potential sites in six states. In 1985, after almost 3 years of analysis, three sites made the short list:

  • Hanford Site in Richland, Washington
  • Deaf Smith County, Texas
  • Yucca Mountain, Nevada

All three fit the required geologic profile. Deaf Smith and Yucca Mountain were also located in isolated desert areas far from large population centers. Hanford, of course, had decades of experience in the nuclear fields of power, bombs, waste, disasters, cleanup, and public relations. (See my feature story on Hanford Site.)

Congress knew that final site selection faced both a lengthy environment impact study process and potential public protest. So, in 1987 Congress passed amendments to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 designed to “streamline” the selection process. By December, 1987, Yucca Mountain, Nevada had been named by Congress as the only site to be considered for the geologic repository.

Yucca Mountain Project

Located about 100 miles north west of Las Vegas, Yucca Mountain already has nuclear experience. It sits adjacent to the sites used for our first nuclear bomb tests.

Yucca Mountain is made of a rock called “tuff.” According to OCRWM geologists, minerals in tuff rock will effectively shield radiation given off by the high-level waste.

Since 1985, OCRWM scientists and engineers have continued to study Yucca Mountain’s suitability and safety. About $1 million a day is spent from the Nuclear Waste Fund on the ongoing research. Considering that waste buried there will remain radioactive for over 10,000 years, their concern seems justified. Scientists’ main worries focus on the likelihood of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. One “young” volcano nearby is thought to have erupted 40,000 years ago -- a blink of a geological eye.

If all the testing finally proves Yucca Mountain safe, DOE will bore 100 miles of tunnels 1000 feet below the surface and 800 feet above the water table. Then, over the next 50 years, 70,000 metric tons of containerized nuclear waste will be loaded into the tunnels. When full, the tunnels and all points of access to them will be sealed forever.

Cross section of storage vault at Yucca Mountain
waste goes in the hatched area, about 1000 ft. underground.

But, after 13 years of study and construction at a cost of $6 billion, Yucca Mountain has yet to be approved for use. And, it might never be. A major part of the 1987 amendments to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act directed that if, at any time, Yucca Mountain is found unsuitable, work will stop immediately, the site will be restored, and we’ll just start looking for another one.

Yucca Mountain was first scheduled to start accepting waste in 1985. That date has since been extended several times and now stands at 2010. If that date is met, Yucca Mountain’s waste capacity will be 70,000 metric tons through 2060. Not enough. By only 2030, America’s nuclear domestic power plants expect to have produced over 85,000 metric tons of waste.

Beyond Yucca Mountain
We probably will finish Yucca Mountain. Historically, devoting several billion dollars to it seems to insure completion of most any government undertaking. Who know what the future may hold? By 2030, waste-free alternatives to nuclear power may have been developed. Maybe we’ll figure out a way to recycle and harness the energy left in nuclear waste. More likely, however, is the need for more geologic repositories and very long-term job security for the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management.

Related Links for Further Study

Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 - In Simple Terms

Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 - Full Text of Act

List of All Nuclear Waste Bills Considered by Congress

Yucca Mountain Geophysical Studies by the USGS

Bibliography for Yucca Mountain Project

Hanford Site: Past Horror - Future Hope

U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission

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