Alternative uses proposed for the Yucca Mountain site now that it has been withdrawn from consideration as the USA’s permanent nuclear waste repository would face a number of challenges, a study has found.
Billions of dollars were spent over nearly two decades on evaluating the Nevada site as a permanent repository for nuclear waste, but following the Obama administration’s proposal to eliminate the project’s funding in early 2010, and the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) subsequent decision to withdraw its licence application, the question of what to do with the site remains. Various possible alternative uses have been proposed by stakeholders including federal officials, state and local government officials and private companies.
The Yucca Mountain site’s geographical, structural, and geophysical characteristics are highly relevant in considering potential alternative uses, and the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) has coordinated a study to examine 30 such proposals. Its newly published report, Yucca Mountain: Information on Alternative Uses of the Site and Related Challenges, finds no clear winners.
Alternative uses considered in the study fall into five broad categories: nuclear or radiological uses, such as a nuclear reprocessing complex; defence or homeland security activities, such as testing systems to detect and identify radioactive materials; information technology uses, such as secure electronic data storage; energy development or storage, such as renewable energy development; and scientific research, such as geology or mining research. Actual projects considered ranged from an interim storage site for nuclear fuel to a test site for the Active Denial System (a nonlethal, directed-energy weapon) or a training ground for first responders in emergency situations such as chemical, biological, radiological, and high explosive hazards.
Structural features at Yucca Mountain include two large tunnels, one about 5 miles (8 km) long and 25 feet (7.6 m) in diameter, and another 2 miles (3.2 km) long that branches off of the main tunnel. The remote site has little surface water, and is comprised of strong, very low permeability volcanic rock in an area with low levels of seismic activity. While these characteristics make the site suitable for various uses, the study found that many of the proposals would be costly, and may also face significant challenges. Furthermore, for many of the proposals the unique features of the site would not be a critical factor, and the proposed activities could be undertaken elsewhere in the USA.
The site’s remote location, for example, would be a challenge for many of the proposed uses: power generation uses would require massive investment in transmission lines, medical isotope production would be too far from the hospitals where the isotopes would be used, while for many proposals staffing such a remote facility would be a problem. The site’s limited infrastructure – most of the buildings were erected as temporary structures and power and water supplies are limited – would have implications for any alternative use, not least in terms of cost.
Beyond the physical challenges, the GAO also notes that any alternative uses of the site face numerous legal and administrative challenges, including the continuing legal proceedings surrounding DOE’s withdrawal of its application to build the repository which “could preclude or significantly delay alternative uses of the site.” Even were those legal proceedings resolved, potential litigation regarding mining claims could present further delays or obstacles. Land management issues could also present problems, as control of the site is divided among three different federal agencies, and the national security activities already taking place on adjacent lands could add further limitations. Finally, any user of the site would have to comply with all applicable federal and state regulations.
GAO notes that the list of proposals covered in its report may not reflect all the potential uses of the site.