Overview and Issues

Yucca Mountain is a ridge of volcanic rock located 90 miles northwest from Las Vegas in Nye County, Nevada. Yucca Mountain is the Department of Energy’s proposed geologic repository for spent nuclear fuel from nuclear power plants, and high-level radioactive waste from national defense reactors.

Originally scheduled to open in 1998, the DOE on March 3, 2010, submitted a request to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to withdraw its license application, after falling behind schedule by more than two decades. On June 29, 2010 the NRC denied DOE’s request to withdraw. Final decisions about Yucca Mountain are pending numerous federal lawsuits.

Clark County’s role is to study and comment on the scientific and technical aspects of the project, analyze, monitor and report on potential impacts and perform public outreach efforts to inform residents of Southern Nevada. Clark County has officially been opposed to Yucca Mountain since 1985. 

2011 Public Outreach Schedule 
Yucca Mountain Advisory Committee  

Earthquake Potential at Yucca Mountain
The region surrounding Yucca Mountain has an established history of earthquake activity, some having a Seismic magnitude between 5.0 to 6.0.

An earthquake only 12.4 miles southeast of Yucca Mountain, at Little Skull Mountain, in 1992 registered a magnitude of 5.6. It caused structural damage above ground at the Field Operations Center. On June 14, 2002, another earthquake originating within the aftershock zone of the prior Little Skull Mountain earthquake measured a magnitude of 4.4.

Scientists cannot predict the exact location of future earthquakes. DOE performed geotechnical investigations to estimate potential sizes and frequencies, and is satisfied that repository designs will withstand future earthquakes.

However, public confidence in the safety of Yucca Mountain is on shaky ground.

Emergency Response 
If the high-level nuclear waste repository becomes a reality, local public safety officials speculate that existing emergency response facilities and professionals may not be prepared to adequately cope with the demands of a nuclear transportation accident.

The Department of Energy's estimate of at least 60 accidents over the course of the shipping campaign will require additional equipment, personnel and equipment that could strain Clark Countys emergency resources.

Projected costs to prepare for and adequately handle a nuclear incident throughout Clark County exceed $3.7 billion. For more details, see the Projected Public Safety Preparedness Costs Fact Sheet.

Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) refers to a program begun in 2006 to form an international partnership to reprocess spent nuclear fuel in a way that renders the plutonium in it usable for nuclear fuel but not for nuclear weapons. By the spring of 2007, 25 countries, including France, Japan, China, and Russia had agreements of international cooperation to investigate these technologies.

Effective June 29, 2009, the Department of Energy cancelled its work on this program. The announcement stated the DOE’s cancellation is “because it is no longer pursuing domestic commercial reprocessing, which was the primary focus of the prior administration's domestic GNEP program.”

The Omnibus Appropriations Act of 2009 provided $145 million for the continuation of research and development on proliferation-resistant fuel cycles and waste management strategies. The current administration's focus is on "long-term, science-based R&D of technologies with the potential to produce beneficial changes to the manner in which the nuclear fuel cycle and nuclear waste is managed."

In 1983 the DOE selected nine sites throughout the nation for scientific investigation and study as potential places for the long-term disposal of nuclear waste. However, in 1987 the DOE singled out Yucca Mountain, approximately 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada, as the only site to be studied. Then in 2002, President George W. Bush and Congress approved Yucca Mountain as the nations only permanent site for storing nuclear waste.

Since ground broke on an exploratory studies facility at Yucca Mountain in 1993, the project has been fraught with delays, cost overruns, questionable science, and charges of falsified scientific documentation, water contamination, and concerns about transportation of nuclear waste across the country.

Click here for a detailed summary of Yucca Mountain Project History.

License Application 
The license application is a formal document that includes scientific data, safety analysis and technical reviews. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act required the Department of Energy to submit an application to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission for authorization to construct and operate a geologic repository at Yucca Mountain.

After years of site characterization and preparation of the license application, the DOE filed its application in June 2008. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission began its comprehensive safety and technical review that September. As part of this process, the NRC’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board conducted technical review proceedings and public legal hearings in Las Vegas.

In February 2010, President Obama’s proposed federal budget for fiscal year 2011 (October 1, 2010 through September 30, 2011) eliminated funding for the Yucca Mountain Project. The DOE formally requested to withdraw its license application; however, the NRC Construction Authorization Board denied DOE permission to withdraw its application. Subsequently the states of Washington, South Carolina, Aiken County South Carolina, Prairie Island Indian Community and the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners have filed federal lawsuits questioning whether the DOE has legal authority to close down the program.

The Nuclear Waste fund was established to help build long-term storage for nuclear waste. With President Barack Obama’s administration proposing to eliminate funding for Yucca Mountain, utilities contend fees should be halted, at least for now.

The DOE collects about $750 million a year from utility rate users that use Nuclear power. To date, the fund has raised approximately $30 billion since 1983.

Potential Impacts to the residents of Nevada
There are potential health and safety risks to residents of Clark County. Transportation of high-level radioactive waste could expose people living and working within one-half mile of shipping routes to above normal levels of radiation.

In addition to Emergency Response concerns, there are other potential economic impacts, specifically related to tourism, and gaming. Three percent of tourists will not come back to Las Vegas if nuclear waste is shipped across the Las Vegas Valley, according to a study by the University of Nevada Las Vegas. Eighteen percent will not return if there is a minor accident involving nuclear waste, and 40 percent of tourists will never return if there is a severe accident. See fact sheets for details: 

Tourism Impacts
Will Yucca Mountain Affect our Economy?

Radiation is energy that travels in the form of waves or particles. There are different types of radiation. The type of radiation that is used in nuclear power has enough energy to break atomic bonds, and is referred to as ionizing radiation.

The most common forms of ionizing radiation are alpha and beta particles, or gamma or X-rays. Any living tissue in the human body can be damaged by ionizing radiation.

Children and the elderly tend to be the most affected by ionizing radiation.

Health physicists generally agree on limiting a persons exposure beyond background radiation to about 100 millirems per year from all sources.

Background radiation can normally be measured at 360 Millirems/Yr. Background radiation can be found in everyday or natural objects such as rocks, cosmic rays from outer space and the sun, radon in the air, uranium, radium and thorium in the earth, radioactive potassium in our food and water, and from within our own bodies.

If the Yucca Mountain project is approved, many Clark County residents could receive involuntary doses of radiation, particularly truck drivers, highway patrolmen, and any person that is stuck in traffic or drives near a nuclear waste transportation vehicle.

Studies have shown that the shipment of high level radioactive waste will impose measurable doses on people who live and work within one-half mile of a proposed route.

The radiation level emitted from nuclear waste containers is 10 millirems/hour at a 2-meter distance, dropping to .22 Millirems/hr at 50 feet. Exposure at 10 millirems/hour is the equivalent of the average person receiving 2 chest x-rays an hour.

Negotiating for Benefits
Many people question the feasibility of negotiation with the federal government to exchange support of Yucca Mountain for benefits to the State of Nevada. Clark County's Board of Commissioners believe that no amount of negotiation can make Yucca Mountain safe. Potential risk of financial exposure and cost to the state far outweighs any potential benefits.

Additionally, the DOE has previously violated agreements made with the State of New Mexico related to benefits promised in return for acceptance of transuranic waste shipments at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plan (WIPP). Training funds for public safety was cut and training did not meet federal standards. 

If Yucca Mountain were to be ultimately licensed, the Department of Energy would transport 70,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste across 43 states for at least 24 years.

While the DOE has not yet identified specific routes, it is responsible for development of a national transportation plan, should the Yucca Mountain Project continue. A combination of trucks and rail lines would most likely be used.

The nation’s system of interstate highways is the default route, unless and until individual states designate alternative routes. In Southern Nevada, highways that could be affected include I-15, I-215, U.S. 93 U.S. 95 and state highway 160.

A new rail line in Nevada would travel north and west, skirting the Nevada Test and Training Range, then south to Yucca Mountain. The DOE has estimated it would cost up to $3 billion to construct a rail line in Nevada to accommodate shipments to Yucca Mountain. A decision to build a rail line is still pending by the Surface transportation Board after a full hearing took place in 2008.