- © 2016 Association of Environmental & Engineering Geologists
The generation of electricity by nuclear power and the manufacturing of atomic weapons have created a large amount of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste. There is a world-wide consensus that the best way to protect mankind and the environment is to dispose of this waste in a deep geologic repository. Initial efforts focused on salt as the best medium for disposal, but the heat generated by the radioactive waste led many earth scientists to examine other rock types. In 1976, the director of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) wrote to the U.S. Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA), predecessor agency of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), suggesting that there were several favorable environments at the Nevada Test Site (NTS), and that the USGS already had extensive background information on the NTS. Later, in a series of communications and one publication, the USGS espoused the favorability of the thick unsaturated zone. After the passage of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (1982), the DOE compiled a list of nine favorable sites and settled on three to be characterized. In 1987, as the costs of characterizing three sites ballooned, Congress amended the Nuclear Waste Policy Act directing the DOE to focus only on Yucca Mountain in Nevada, with the proviso that if anything unfavorable was discovered, work would stop immediately. The U.S. DOE, the U.S. DOE national laboratories, and the USGS developed more than 100 detailed plans to study various earth-science aspects of Yucca Mountain and the surrounding area, as well as materials studies and engineering projects needed for a mined geologic repository. The work, which cost more than 10 billion dollars and required hundreds of man-years of work, culminated in a license application submitted to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in 2008.