Danger Underground: Nuclear Waste Disposal in Yucca Mountain
The U.S. Department of Energy has proposed plans to deposit 70,000 tons of highly radioactive waste underground Yucca Mountain in Nevada. While many environmental questions and concerns have been raised about the safety of the waste disposal plan for the next 10,000 years, there appears to be no alternative. Waste from nuclear weapons and nuclear power plants are a serious environmental problem that will be present for generations to come. It should be society's responsibility to come up with more efficient sources of energy, despite the costs, to prevent the production of more hazardous waste in the future.
The "nuclear age" produced 52,000 tons of spent fuel from commercial, military, and research reactors, along with 91 million gallons of radioactive waste from plutonium processing (Long 12). More than 90% of the waste that needs to be stored is from commercial nuclear power plants, and 10% is from defense programs (Environmental Protection Agency/ Yucca Mtn. Standards). The waste from defense programs primarily accumulated during the arms race of the Cold War. Waste produced from commercial nuclear power plants is currently stored in 131 separate facilities in 43 different states, most of which are east of the Mississippi (Wheelwright 2002).
Several government departments are responsible for taking care of all this waste. The Department of Energy (DOE) runs the nuclear facilities and supervises cleanup performed by commercial contractors. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is responsible for setting health and environmental waste standards for the long-term storage of waste produced by these facilities. The Department of Transportation supervises most shipments of nuclear materials, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) sets the standards for those shipments and licenses all commercial reactors (Long, 9).
Finding a Waste Disposal Site
The government started researching disposal sites for nuclear waste in the early 1970s. Experts around the world agreed that the safest place to store nuclear materials is deep underground, so most site proposals were located deep below mountain ranges (Yucca Mountain Project website). The Nuclear Waste Policy Act was passed in 1987, which eliminated all prospective sites but one: Yucca Mountain in Nevada (Ewing and Macfarlane 2002). More than 4 billion dollars has been spent on researching this site in the last twenty years.
Yucca Mountain is a long flat ridge of volcanic ash that reaches 5,000 feet high. The site is attractive for several reasons. First of all, Nevada receives an average rainfall of only seven inches, which is important because corrosion due to water is a major concern with nuclear waste storage. Also, Yucca Mountain is located within Nye County, an area with only a few hundred residents. Lastly, the Nellis Air Force Base is located nearby, providing a certain amount of protection,...