Yucca Mountain and Nuclear Waste
Questions, Dilemmas and Issues Raised

Amanda Cravens

(Final project for Environmental Studies 2 at Swarthmore College, Spring 2003)

"The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking and we thus drift towards unparalleled catastrophe."

Albert Einstein

Facts About Nuclear Waste
History Of Yucca Mountain
What Is the Problem?
Environmental Racism
Policy Trying To Legislate Science
What Is The Solution?
How You Can Be Part Of The Solution
Resources and Links for More Information
Notes And Citations


Nuclear fission (the splitting of atom nucleuses) releases energy that is used both militarily in atomic weapons and commercially to produce electricity, including approximately 40% of the electricity powering the computer on which I am writing. (1) Since the reaction does not entirely consume the atoms that power it, spent fuel rods containing uranium and plutonium are the dangerous and unfortunate by-product of the nuclear generation of electricity. In an effort to find storage for ever-growing quantities of this radioactive waste material (and thus allow the reactors to keep operating (2) ), Congress's 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act initiated a process to build a deep-geologic repository to store the waste. Yucca Mountain in Nevada was the site eventually identified to possibly serve as the nation's repository. This page outlines some of the controversies surrounding Yucca Mountain and nuclear wastes, as well as sources for further study of this very important issue.

[Back to top]

Some Basic Facts About Nuclear Waste

[Back to top]

History Of Yucca Mountain

Yucca Mountain is a set of hills made of ancient volcanic ash called tuffs by geologists. It lies 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, on the government-owned land of the Nevada Test Site. (7) Though the United States government has occupied the Nevada Test Site since the mid-twentieth century, the Western Shoshone and Southern Paiute claim this land, as do other native tribes. Yucca Mountain itself is a holy site for these groups. (8)

Yucca Mountain is currently the only site in the US being evaluated as a location for a national deep-geologic repository, which is rather ironic considering that Nevada does not use nuclear power and that most of the waste is located at plants in the East. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 originally legislated the selection of two sites, one in the East and the other in the West. (9) Eight prospective sites were identified, after which a political battle ensued as senators from all states being considered attempted to find reasons for the repository to be located elsewhere. It was the ultimate case of "Not in my backyard!" (10) Amendments to the original legislation made in 1987 selected Yucca Mountain, as well as designating Yucca Mountain the sole site, thus abandoning the plans for a second Eastern site. (11)

Although the Department of Energy did not meet the original deadline to accept waste by 1998, scientific evaluations and various licensing procedures have been steadily moving forward, and the current timeline calls for the repository to open in 2010. The Environmental Protection Agency has released a preliminary impact statement. In early 2002, the Secretary of Energy recommended Yucca Mountain as the nation's site, and President George Bush approved this recommendation. The President's approval allows the government to proceed to the next step, obtaining a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Also in 2002, the Department of Energy obtained approval to seek a license from the Department of Transportation to transport waste to the site.

[Back to top]

What Is the Problem?

These plans to build a repository at Yucca Mountains have been politically controversial, attracting the energy of numerous activists who oppose the site location, the way the process has progressed thus far, and the nuclear industry in general. Two of the most significant issues raised by Yucca Mountain are environmental racism and the problem of policy makers trying to legislate science.

Environmental Racism

"We are now the most bombed nation in the world" -Western Shoshone Chief Raymond Yowell (speaking about United States tests of nuclear weapons in his Nevada homeland (12) )

Environmental racism is "racial discrimination in environmental policy making." This definition includes differences in the enforcement of environmental laws and regulations, zoning practices, targeted siting of polluting industries and waste disposal facilities, and exclusion of people of color from environmental groups and organizations. Environmental racism can occur within or between nations. (13) Although economically it is efficient to site dirty industries and facilities in poor areas, the correlation between race and class in the United States does not fully explain the incidence of these dirty industries in minority neighborhoods. Even when income level is controlled for, people of color are more likely to experience pollution and degraded environments. (14)

In the case of nuclear industries, one of the largest affected groups is Native Americans. Nuclear tests have been conducted on or near native lands since the beginning of the Manhattan Project in the 1940s. Tribes living in the "sacrifice zones" of the southwestern desert region have experienced increased incidences of cancer and birth defects, and the normal effects of radiation may have been exacerbated by lifestyles that increase exposure (such as sleeping outside in summer and eating local game) and by decreased access to health care. (15)

In addition to weapons testing, native peoples have also seen the effects of uranium mining and now are being targeted to store nuclear waste. Indeed, native sovereignty gives tribal councils the same rights as states and this power dynamic is being exploited by the government. As Grace Thorpe points out, "the real irony is that after years of trying to destroy it, the United States is promoting Indian national sovereignty-just so it can dump its waste on Native land." (16) Valerie Kuletz terms the situation "internal colonialism." Kuletz, Bullard and others have discussed the ideology of sacrifice zones. No matter how it is described, however, it is clear that native peoples are bearing much of the cost of our nation's nuclear industry.

Policy Trying To Legislate Science

Geologist Alison Macfarlane points out some of the problems in legislation thus far concerning Yucca Mountain:

Macfarlane concludes: "Congress cannot ask geologists to provide assurances about the integrity of a repository if such scientifically ridiculous requirements are imposed. This situation must change if a repository is to be successful. Certainly, it is the job of Congress to legislate the management structure and operation of repository characterization. But Congress should enlist the help of geologists with the geological problems." (22)

[Back to top]

What Is The Solution?

"You should make a decision taking into account the impact on the next 7 generations"

Iroquois Proverb

Unfortunately, there is no solution to the problem of storing the existing nuclear waste. Vast quantities of the stuff already exist and we have to do something with it. With half lives of 240,000 years or more, it's not going anywhere. Even so, there are ways to improve the situation.

We (and our government) need to:

1) Stop Production of Nuclear Waste by stopping production of nuclear generated power. It is sheer stupidity to continue to generate waste before we know what to do with the waste we already have. Yes, it will cost more in the short run, but we have a responsibility to the future to deal with this problem and the problem is growing daily while production continues. An easy way to do this is to Stop Subsidising nuclear power. (It is bills like the Price-Anderson Bill that make nuclear power economically viable in the first place).

2) Make transparent public decisions that make citizens - and not nuclear power utilities - the priority. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act does not allow stopping production as a possible alternative in its assessment of the risks imposed by a deep-geologic repository. (23) The government and Department of Energy must listen to and address citizen concerns about the dangers of radioactive material.

3) Make the search for a "tech-fix" solution a priority without counting on science to solve the problem. We can't legislate scientific results, but instead need to be as flexible as possible in encouraging creative scientific answers. As Alison Macfarlane points out, "the best minds in the country, if not the world, were applied to making the first atomic bomb. Why not have innovative thinkers try to solve the problem of nuclear waste disposal? At the moment, only the Department of Energy and its contractors are studying Yucca Mountain." (24) Suggestions have been made for diluting nuclaer waste sufficiently enough that it would no longer cause the same damage. Though much further study is needed, creative alternatives such as this could conceivably be found.

4) Be patient. The waste is not causing a problem to anyone but the nuclear power utilities in its current location in cooling ponds, and it can safely remain there for 50-100 years. We need to allow sufficient time to let science work and to publically and fully weigh the costs and benefits of various proposals and sites.

5) Fight environmental racism in whatever arena its found. Environmental problems cannot be solved while inequality exists. Civil rights and environmentalism are mutually dependent.

[Back to top]

How You Can Be Part Of The Solution

[Back to top]

Resources and Links for More Information

(Of course, the following sources represent only the tip of the iceberg, but I have included them in the hope that they provide help in digging out the rest of the iceberg for those interested in exploring this issue further.)


A general, if slightly outdated, overview of the nuclear waste issue (including Chapter 6 which clearly details the early legislative history of Yucca Mountain) is provided by Forevermore: Nuclear Waste in America (by Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. 1985.)

A Native American Perspective on the Nuclear Waste issue and "radioactive colonialism" can be found in "Our Homes Are Not Dumps" by Grace Thorpe (in Defending Mother Earth. Jace Weaver, ed. New York: Orbis Books. 1997. pp 47-58.).

"American Indians and Nuclear Waste Storage: The Debate at Yucca Mountain, Nevada" by Richard W. Stoffle and Michael J. Evans (in Native Americans and Public Policy, Fremont J. Lyden and Lyman H. Legters, Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press. 1992. pp 243-262) discusses tribes impacted by the proposed deep-geologic repository.

Confronting Environmental Racism: Voices from the Grassroots (Robert D. Bullard, ed. Boston, MA: South End Press. 1993.) discusses environmental racism and the current movement against it and is written by people of color. A more philosophical book on the same issue is Faces of Environmental Racism (Laura Westra and Bill E. Lawson, eds. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. 2001). It also includes international case studies.


Inyo County (CA) Repository Assessment Office - website of one of the affected local governments - http://www.sdsc.edu/Inyo/yucca-pg.htm

EPA Yucca Mountain Site - http://www.epa.gov/radiation/yucca/about.htm

Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program - non-profit started by Ralph Nader to provide information about nuclear power and waste:
General site - http://www.citizen.org/CMEP/
Yucca Mountain information - http://www.citizen.org/cmep/energy_enviro_nuclear/nuclear_waste/hi- level/yucca/index.cfm

Department of Energy Site - http://www.ocrwm.doe.gov/ymp/index.shtml

State of Nevada's collection of environmental impact statements on Yucca Mountain - http://www.state.nv.us/nucwaste/eis/yucca/index.htm

Open Directory Collection of links about nuclear Waste - http://dmoz.org/Society/Issues/Environment/Nuclear/Waste/Activism/

[Back to top]

Notes And Citations

1. Earthlust of Swarthmore College website - http://www.sccs.swarthmore.edu/org/earthlust/

2. Allison Macfarlane "Standoff at Yucca Mountain: High-Level Nuclear Waste in the United States." In The Earth Around Us: Maintaining a Livable Planet. Jill S Schneiderman, ed. New York: W.H. Freemand and Company. 2000. pp 286

3. Valerie L. Kuletz. The Tainted Desert: Environmental and Social Ruin in the American West. New York: Routledge. 1998. p 82.

4. K.S Shrader-Frechette, Burying Uncertainty (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993). 14. (as quoted in Kuletz 85)

5. Kuletz 83

6. Macfarlane 285-6

7. Macfarlane 284

8. Kuletz 69

9. Macfarlane 286-7

10. Bartlett and Steele 153-165

11. Macfarlane 287

12. Quoted in Kuletz 72

13. Bullard 3

14. Westra and Lawson xvii

15. Kuletz Chapter 3 and 4

16. Thorpe 54

17. Macfarlane 288-289

18. Macfarlane 290-293

19. Macfarlane 293

20. Macfarlane 297

21. Macfarlane 297

22. Macfarlane 298

23. Kuletz 91

24. Macfarlane 294

[Back to top]

Read the author's other essays:

Technology, Population, and the Impact of Ancient Humans on the Environment

The Dynamic Relationship Between Technology and Culture

Luck and 'backwardness': A new story of European contact with the Americas

Population and the Environment: Are We Doomed?

Return to ENVS2 homepage

Send message to Swarthmore College Environmental Studies

last updated 4/7/03