Proposed Nuclear Waste Storage in Yucca Mountain, Nevada, U.S.

Yucca Mountain is the proposed site for the Department of Energy’s repository for spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste (EPW majority staff 2006). The facility is located on federally owned land on the western edge of the famous Nevada Test Site, approximately 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas (EPW majority staff 2006). The public at large remains concerned with a variety of potential technical issues, such as ground water movement, radiation leaks, and exposure to hazardous materials during transportation (EPW majority staff 2006).

Screen Shot 2016-03-28 at 3.58.30 PM
Yucca Mountain (Gwynne 2014).

There are a number of factors which suggest Yucca Mountain is an ideal waste storage location:

  • Water table at Yucca Mountain sits approximately 1,600 to 2,600 feet below the surface of the mountain (Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management 2002).
  • The completed storage facility, resembling a series of parallel tunnels with a connecting loop and two entry bays, would be located in an “unsaturated” zone 660 to 1,600 feet below the surface and about 1,000 feet above the water table (Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management 2002).
  • Low water infiltration rates due to low annual rainfall and high rates of evaporation (Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management 2002).

The main objective of the underground facility is to isolate waste (Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management 2002). Waste packages will be stored in dedicated drifts, which are supported by emplacement pallets (Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management 2002). These pallets are aligned end to end on a tunnel floor, in a tube-like manner (Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management 2002).

While the Yucca Mountain facility appears to be isolated and strategically planned, there are still concerns that operations could bring harm to nearby populations. The most vulnerable populations include the Native Americans of Clark County, who can be considered a marginalized group. Catherine Fowler conducted a review of ethnographic literature and data sets from scholars of Native American history in order to summarize information “relative to Native American concerns involving the potential siting of a high-level nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada” (1991). Early Native American groups in the Southwest lived by hunting, gathering, camping, and migrating (Fowler 1991). Given that they knew the environment and its resources exceedingly well, they developed a deep attachment to the land as reflected in cultural values and religion. An important religious perspective is the concept of power, called “puha,” an impersonal and sacred force which can reside in any natural or living thing (Fowler 1991). Attitudes toward land-altering projects such as Yucca Mountain see it as potentially harmful to the Earth and “puha” (Fowler 1991).

A Clark County investigation using dozens of Native American interviews found similar concerns (2007). Tribal representatives expressed a fear of water contamination as their largest concern (Clark County 2007). Other highly-tallied safety concerns included intrusive transportation and the threat of radioactive leaks (Clark County 2007). Because the tribes have small numbers of members, the leadership worries about their exposure and survival in the event of a serious nuclear-related accident (Clark County 2007). Native Americans have lacked a political, socioeconomic, and culturally sensitive voice in the Yucca Mountain developmental process. A widely distributed video production which accompanied the Clark County investigation provides them a public platform, which is unprecedented in government agencies (Clark County 2007). Produced by Clark County administrators, the video tells the story of how Indian tribes of Clark County feel about Yucca Mountain. The general discontent and unanswered concerns which prompted this investigation show the extent to which the Shoshone and nearby tribes, most definitely a population traditionally marginalized by this country by lack of true representation in government, are being further endangered and culturally repressed by the United States. The lack of input and communication is the real grievance in this situation.

The operations of nuclear power facilities and Yucca Mountain have impacts not only on the surrounding populations, but also on the environment around the sites. Among the major energy sources available today, nuclear power uses:

  • a medium “water consumption intensity of electricity generation,” with a value of 1,700 L/MWh (Jackson et al. 2014).
  • This is somewhat lower than other sources, such as pulverized coal with 1,900 L/MWh, irrigated corn ethanol with 16,000 L/MWh, and concentrated solar power with 3,100 L/MWh (Jackson et al. 2014).

Nuclear power’s water usage is fairly similar to forms of fossil fuels, depending on the style of measurement. However, nuclear power has nearly zero greenhouse gas emissions, excluding embodied energy, with the major byproducts being heat and radioactive materials (World Nuclear Association 2014). Therefore, the question of sustainability in the nuclear field is largely focused on storage of hazardous waste. Yucca Mountain has a number of barriers in place to ensure proper containment of radiation:

  1. Natural barriers consist of thick soils and unsaturated rock layers above and below the storage facility (Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management 2002).
  2. Engineered barriers include the previously-discussed waste package tubing and a series of thick, overlapping drip shields (Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management 2002).

Barring a serious natural disaster or well-planned attack, these measures are rated to contain wastes in a safe manner with a 10,000 year rating (Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management 2002).


The Larger Context

The nuclear energy debate is not limited to Yucca Mountain, or even the United States for that matter. In the United States, approximately 19% of our electricity comes from nuclear power plants, compared to approximately 27% from natural gas and 39% from coal (NEI 2014). At the global level, only about 11 to 12% of electricity is generated in nuclear power plants (NEI 2014). The largest producers of electricity by nuclear means in descending order are the United States, France, Japan, Russia, and South Korea (World Nuclear Association 2014). A single uranium pellet contains as much energy as 480 cubic meters of natural gas, 807 kilograms of coal, and 149 gallons of oil (World Nuclear Association 2014).

Generally, there are three levels of waste (World Nuclear Association 2014).

  1. High level waste is only 3% of the total volume, but accounts for 95% of radioactive content (World Nuclear Association 2014).
  2. Intermediate waste makes up 7% of the total volume, but accounts for 4% of radioactive content (World Nuclear Association 2014).
  3. Low level waste makes up 90% of the total volume, but accounts for only 1% of radioactive content (World Nuclear Association 2014).

The most significant high level waste is the nuclear fuel from inside the reactor assemblies, which becomes waste after about three years of use (World Nuclear Association 2014). Intermediate and low level wastes are stored in ways similar to normal landfills (World Nuclear Association 2014). High level wastes must remain at the sites of nuclear power plants, in specially-lined concrete and steel containers in the ground (World Nuclear Association 2014). The volume of commercially-spent nuclear fuel is predicted to more than double within the next 40 years (World Nuclear Association 2014). The issue of long term storage will only become more relevant.



According to the 1987 Brundtland commission, sustainable development is defined as development which “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (World Commission on Environment and Development staff 1987). With this definition, it is assumed that development is a necessity and that in development, the economy cannot be decoupled from the environment. We must however consider the degree to which nuclear power can stay in line with the principles of sustainability. We are currently living in country based on consumerism. Thanks to capitalism and the growth imperative, people in the United States are using more electricity, buying bigger homes, and creating more demand for energy. For the most part, our lifestyles encourage a “treadmill of production,” the constant cycle of growth and expansion due to the belief that firms, in this case nuclear electricity providers, must expand to maintain profits (Robbins et al. 2014). If energy production increases through nuclear means, local storage sites are going to quickly reach waste storage limits. Within the next few years, the chances of Yucca Mountain being fully approved will certainly increase. This brings forward a troubling issue. The largest risk involved in nuclear power production, aside from a highly unlikely reactor meltdown, is waste transportation (McCombie 2003). Trucking or train accidents are bound to occur as hundreds or thousands of crossings are made across the United States, especially if a long-term storage facility is located in the West. Such an accident would not only create what political economists would refer to as the “second contradiction of capitalism,” or degradation to the environment, but would result in the formation of a crisis (Robbins et al. 2014). History has shown, in the cases of Chernobyl and Fukushima, that nuclear crises are extremely dangerous.

As previously mentioned, the Native Americans of Clark County, specifically a tribe of Shoshone, remain fearful of development and feel that they are being marginalized by the government. Several pieces of federal legislation in addition to Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 are relevant to Native American involvement in Yucca Mountain (Fowler 1991). Among the most important is the National Environmental Policy Act and its regulations that mandate consideration by agencies of environmental impacts on federal lands. Attention must be given to maintaining environmental quality and diversity for future generations and to assuring for all Americans safe, healthful, productive, and aesthetically and culturally pleasing surroundings (Fowler 1991). Another key piece of legislation is AIRFA, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. Since its passage in 1978, AIRFA has not accumulated an impressive record in the courts in protecting Native American religious freedom or sacred sites (Fowler 1991). The Indian Claims Commission, in a series of decisions rendered in the 1960s and 1970s, sought to extinguish aboriginal claims by Native American tribes, and provide “just compensation” for seized land (Fowler 1991). On December 6, 1979, roughly $26,000,000 was awarded to the Western Shoshone (Fowler 1991). The tribes and people in question refused to accept payment and the funds are still on deposit in the U.S. Treasury (Fowler 1991). In the eyes of the native people, their land was taken from them illegally without proper consideration and compensation. This clearly depicts actions backed by some degree of state-sponsored environmental racism (Fowler 1991). Less care is given to Native Americans due to racial undertones and historic patterns of treatment. Every proposed long term nuclear waste facility has been located on Native American land (Public Citizen 2005).



There is a concept that “resources are not; they become” (Bridge 2009). Yucca Mountain is on the verge of becoming a resource for the United States in the form of a storage facility. This resource is hybrid in nature; a physical area with the necessary characteristics in place for safe waste storage, but also a social conception which became necessary as we discovered the need for long term storage. Yucca Mountain was a natural resource with cultural significance for these populations long before the United States government took control. The Yucca Mountain debate will never end and the Native Americans will not cease to be marginalized until their history is fully recorded, recognized, appreciated, and fairly protected.



Pop-up image source:

Bridge, Gavin. “Material Worlds: Natural Resources, Resource Geography and the Material Economy.” Geography Compass. Volume 3, Issue 3 (2009): 1217 – 1244.

Clark County. “Indian Perspectives on Yucca Mountain.” Department of Comprehensive Planning, Nuclear Waste Program. 2007. Accessed: 30 September 2014.

EPW majority staff. “Yucca Mountain: The Most Studied Real Estate on the Planet.” U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works Majority Staff. 2006. Accessed: 30 September 2014.

Fowler, Catherine, Maribeth Hamby, Elmer Rusco, and Mary Rusco. Native Americans and Yucca Mountain: A Revised and Updated Summary Report on Research Undertaken Between 1987 and 1991. Reno, Nevada: Cultural Resource Consultants, 1991.

GAO. “Commercial Nuclear Energy Waste: Effects of a Termination of the Yucca Mountain Repository Program and Lessons Learned.” United States Government Accountability Office. 2011. Accessed: 1 October 2014.

Jackson et al. “The Environmental Costs and Benefits of Fracking.” Annual Reviews. Volume 39 (2014): 1 – 36.

McCombie, Charles. “International Perspectives on the Reprocessing, Storage, and Disposal of Spent Nuclear Fuel.” The Bridge: Linking Engineering and Society. Volume 33, Number 3 (2003): 5 – 11.

Nuclear Energy Institute. Issues & Policy. Nuclear Energy Institute, 2014. Accessed: 28 September 2014.

Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management. “Yucca Mountain Science and Engineering Report.” U.S. Department of Energy. Revision 1. 2002. Accessed: 30 September 2014.

Public Citizen staff. “Radioactive Racism: The History of Targeting Native American Communities with High Level Atomic Waste Dumps.” Nuclear Information & Resource Service, 2005. Accessed 2 December 2014.

Robbins et al. “Political Economy.” Environment and Society: A Critical Introduction. John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, 2014. 98 – 117.

Wood, David. “Australia Has Nowhere to Put Its Shipment of French Nuclear Waste.” VICE News. Vice Media, 2014. Accessed: 5 November 2014.

World Commission on the Environment and Development staff. “Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future.” UN General Assembly, 1987. Accessed 2 December 2014.

World Nuclear Association. Nuclear Basics. World Nuclear Association, 2014. Accessed: 28 September 2014.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s