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Yucca Mountain Is Far From Dead

The United States' beleaguered nuclear waste storage plan finds a flicker of hope in a new report.

The slow-motion disaster that is the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository is poised to bounce back into the realm of viability. Last week, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission released a new 781-page report on the long-delayed project, finding that the repository is sufficiently sealed off from the environment to store nuclear waste.

"Yucca Mountain is dead. It'll never happen." Those are the words of Harry Reid, spoken shortly after the Nevada senator became the Senate Majority Leader in 2006. A year later, the United States Department of Energy, still under the control of then-president George HW Bush, announced plans to double the size of the facility. In 2008, Barack Obama made a campaign promise to end the project, but congress beat him to it, passing an Omnibus Spending Bill that slashed Yucca Mountain's budget to nil.

Yucca Mountain has been in the works now for 27 years. The facility or would-be facility is the product of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, which mandated the construction of a single facility to store the country's nuclear and radioactive waste. In 1987, Congress enacted a law designating Yucca Mountain as the preferred location. It wasn't until 2002 that the Department of Energy (DOE) got the go-ahead to build the thing. In 2006, the DOE announced that the site would begin accepting waste by 2017.

By 2011, however, Yucca Mountain was without a budget. Shutting the facility down wasn't quite as easy as it might seem though: Part of the deal made between the Department of Energy and the various utility companies producing waste from their nuclear power plants meant that each were paying into a federally-managed fund backing development of the Yucca Mountain site. Without a repository, the feds have been on the hook for $300 to $500 million per year in compensation.

Fuel rods, Image: Aaron Frank/Flickr

Last year, a coalition of nuclear waste-producing states, led by nuclear energy big guns South Carolina and Washington, won a key lawsuit against the feds, essentially forcing the NRC to continue pursuing the site. "Unless and until Congress authoritatively says otherwise, or there are no appropriated funds remaining, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission must promptly continue with the legally mandated licensing process," the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit found.

The new report is the result of that victory, but the project's future still depends on money. Without congressional allocations, Yucca Mountain will remain an empty hole.

In addition to finding that the facility has the property barriers in place to isolate the waste from the surrounding environment, "The staff also found the proposed repository design meets the NRC's limits or standards for individual protection, human intrusion and groundwater protection," according to an NRC statement.

The project still has a long way to go, with several more volumes of research due from the NRC, an approval vote from the NRC commissioners, and, of course, the allocation of more money. Not to worry though: the United States' nuclear waste isn't going anywhere, at least for another 24,000 years.