The Yucca Mountain Controversy

The disposal of nuclear hazardous wastes is one of the most controversial issues in U.S. waste management policy. In 1982 Congress enacted the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which directed the U.S. Department of Energy to build a deep geologic repository for high-level radioactive waste no later than 1998. In 1987 Congress amended the act to propose Yucca Mountain, Nevada—a remote desert location— as the site for this national nuclear repository. However, years of delays have extended the 1998 deadline more than 20 years; the facility is not expected to open until at least 2020, if it ever opens at all.

The delays were caused by strong opposition from Nevada citizens and political leaders, who did not want their state to become the dumping ground for highly dangerous wastes. The repository site is also situated on land claimed by a Native American tribe, the Western Shoshone Nation. After numerous lawsuits, Congress and President George W Bush finally approved the Yucca Mountain site in 2002. If it is built, the facility will house over 77,160 tons (70,000 metric tons) of highly radioactive waste, most of it from U.S. nuclear reactors, where it has been piling up in temporary storage containers.

Many uranium mining sites, like the abandoned open pit uranium mine shown here, have become environmental wastelands.

Most countries that operate nuclear reactors have opted for one of three methods: storing it in containers on the earth's surface, burying it deep in the ground in containers, or reprocessing it into solid glass or ceramic blocks for deep burial.

The storage of nuclear wastes at nuclear plants, critics say, raises concerns about potential terrorist strikes or accidental release of radioactive materials. The nuclear industry, for its part, favors deep burial of wastes into geological formations of granite or basalt—materials believed to be hard enough to prevent movement of the wastes—sealed with concrete. Yet this option also has its weaknesses, because natural events such as earthquakes or volcanic activity can disrupt rock formations and potentially disturb and release radioactive wastes into the environment. Another issue involved in burying nuclear waste is that people, understandably, do not want burial sites located anywhere close to where they live. A huge and prolonged political controversy has arisen in the United States, for example, over Yucca Mountain —a remote desert site in Nevada selected by the government to be a repository for all of the nation's nuclear wastes.

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