Home Opinion Nevada’s Yucca Mountain And A Reasonable Alternative to Storing Nuclear Waste

Nevada’s Yucca Mountain And A Reasonable Alternative to Storing Nuclear Waste


By James Lint
Faculty Member, School of Business, American Military University
Senior Editor for InCyberDefense and Contributor, In Homeland Security

In 2002, there were 47 metric tons of high-level nuclear waste stored in the United States, according to the website whatisnuclear.com. The waste, sometimes called used fuel, is dangerously radioactive and remains so for thousands of years.

Where can all this nuclear waste be safely stored? One solution that is often cited is Yucca Mountain, Nevada, called a “million-year warehouse of valuable nuclear material.”

Yucca Mountain Was Designed to Safely Store High-Level Radioactive Waste for 10,000 Years

Yucca Mountain was designated as the permanent underground storage site for nuclear waste in 1987. “It had an ambitious mission— to entomb high-level radioactive waste safely for at least 10,000 years — and a tentative opening date of 1998,” according to journalist Sarah Zhang’s March 2017 article in The Atlantic magazine.

“But the process of even approving construction for the mountain repository has dragged on through four presidents. In 2011, the Obama administration officially mothballed the project.”

However, in its proposed budget announced in March, the Trump administration earmarked $120 million to restart an approval process for Yucca Mountain. Environmentalists and some local lawmakers were outraged.

The LA Times describes the issue as “among the most intractable political, legal and technical issues in modern U.S. history.”

“At an estimated cost of $100 billion, the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump would rival the International Space Station in cost and complexity, requiring construction of roughly 300 miles of new railroad tracks to transport the waste, development of advanced robots to work underground and fabrication of special titanium shields to keep the waste intact for, it is hoped, hundreds of thousands of years,” the Times article said.

Recycling Spent Nuclear Fuel Rods Also a Possibility

But there is another solution that could make money for Nevada taxpayers. Why not recycle spent fuel rods at the Nevada National Security Site (NNSS) and sell them back to nuclear power plants?

That’s the idea of Steven Curtis, a multiple-degreed physics engineer and scientist who has managed major programs within the National Nuclear Security Administration. On November 7, Curtis spoke at the Nevada chapter of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers.

Curtis’s idea is to construct a nuclear materials recycling plant and sell the fuel rods back to nuclear power plants. If implemented, the plan could generate tens of billions in state taxes and payments to Nevada citizens similar to Alaska’s pipeline deal, he said.

Some of the other key points of Curtis’s recent talk were:

  1. Killing the million-year Yucca Mountain storage plan is a lose-lose-lose scenario for citizens, business and the U.S.
  2. Over 2,000 dry storage casks for used nuclear fuel rods are stored at 38 locations in the United States.
  3. Implementing recycling instead of using a million-year storage plan could free up over $50 billion to build the recycling plant.
  4. Chicago’s Argonne National Lab has developed new, tax-funded recycling technology (pyroprocessing) that should be used at Yucca Mountain.
  5. A modern recycling plant could lead to Nevada being approved as a National Carbon-Free (C-F) Energy Lab, a Center for C-F systems and a National R&D Center for SecureTheGrid technologies.

Recycling Nuclear Waste Is a Better Plan than Storing Spent Fuel

Recycling is a safe and viable action. Other major nuclear nations recycle nuclear materials. The United States has not even started a nuclear recycling program.

The key goal is to recycle and burn up excess plutonium (Pu) in future reactors. Due to the vast experience, isolated location and high-level security, the NNSS is an ideal venue for the control and manufacture of fuels for all types of future reactors.

Implementing a Nuclear Recycling Program in the US

A change to recycling would require updating the Million-Year Yucca Mountain Plan/Law, creating a National Nuclear Recycling Center and establishing a Carbon-Free Energy Center and National Engineering Lab at the NNSS site, Curtis said.

The Nevada Nuclear Security Site is a natural Department of Energy (DOE) location to back up and develop mobile support to the electric grid. According to a recent report by the Congressional Research Service, 79.6 percent of Nevada’s land is federally owned. As a result, Washington has major control over land for sensitive government research.

That is why the NNSS has been used for sensitive security solutions from conducting nuclear tests to testing the U-2 and SR-71 surveillance and reconnaissance planes.

If the NNSS site can do sensitive national security research and development, it could also be used to create a more environmentally friendly solution to the all-important problem of nuclear waste disposal.

About the Author

James R. Lint recently retired as the (GG-15) civilian director for intelligence and security, G2, U.S. Army Communications Electronics Command. He is an adjunct professor at AMU. James has been involved in cyberespionage events from just after the turn of the century in Korea supporting 1st Signal Brigade to the DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis as the first government cyber intelligence analyst. He has 38 years of experience in military intelligence with the U.S. Marine Corps, U.S. Army, government contracting and civil service.

Additionally, James started the Lint Center for National Security Studies, a nonprofit charity that recently awarded its 49th scholarship for national security students and professionals. James was also elected as the 2015 national vice president for the Military Intelligence Corps Association. He has also served in the Department of Energy’s S&S Security Office after his active military career in the Marine Corps for seven years and 14 years in the Army. His military assignments include South Korea, Germany and Cuba, in addition to numerous CONUS locations. In 2017, he was appointed to the position of Adjutant for The American Legion, China Post 1. James has authored a book published in 2013, “Leadership and Management Lessons Learned,” a book published in 2016 “8 Eyes on Korea, A Travel Perspective of Seoul, Korea,” and a new book in 2017 Secrets to Getting a Federal Government Job.”