About Yucca Mountain Standards
Yucca Mountain Standards
Yucca Mountain is the Department of Energys potential geologic repository designed to store and dispose of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste. If approved, the site would be the nations first geological repository for disposal of this type of radioactive waste.
The site is located on federally owned land on the western edge of the Nevada Test Site in southern Nye County, Nevada, about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas. It is in the Mojave Desert where it receives less than seven inches of rain per year and has a deep water table.
In the current repository design, the radioactive material would be placed about 1000 feet beneath the land surface and about 1000 feet above the closest ground water. The repository is designed to hold 70,000 metric tons of waste, ninety percent of which would be spent nuclear fuel from nuclear power plants and ten percent of which would be high-level radioactive waste from government defense projects.
Below are answers to many questions commonly asked about the repository and EPA's Role:
- What types of radioactive wastes are proposed for disposal at Yucca Mountain?
- What is EPAs role?
- What will the specific standards cover?
- How do EPAs final standards and amendments protect public health?
- How will EPA's final standards protect the environment?
- How did EPA develop the original standards?
- What was the effect of the lawsuit challenging the final standards?
- When will the Yucca Mountain repository open?
- How would the waste be transported to the repository?
What types of radioactive wastes are proposed for disposal at Yucca Mountain?
Spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste make up most of the material to be disposed at Yucca Mountain. About 90% of this waste is from commercial nuclear power plants; the remaining is from defense programs. This waste is currently stored at facilities in 43 states.
What is EPAs role?
The Energy Policy Act of 1992 requires EPA to develop standards specifically for the Yucca Mountain site. EPA's standards are designed to protect the public and the environment from exposure to the radioactive wastes that would be stored in the repository. You can learn about the roles of the many agencies involved in Yucca Mountain at Roles of the Federal Agencies.
What will the specific standards cover?
EPA issued the final Yucca Mountain standards in June 2001, as 40 CFR (Code of Federal Regulations) Part 197 (PDF) . In developing the standards, EPA considered a large volume of technical information. It also considered discussions with key stakeholders and numerous comments received on a draft version of the standards, which was published for public comment. As a result of a July 2004 ruling by the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit , EPA, following careful consideration of public comments, amended the standards to provide the following:
- extending coverage beyond 10,000 years to peak dose (out to 1 million years)
- establishing a dose rate limit for the post-10,000-year period (100 mrem/yr)
- providing guidance for implementing the standards.
Part 197 contains three standards for the disposal of radioactive waste at Yucca Mountain:
The individual-protection standard sets an overall dose limit of 15 millirem per year for residents living in the vicinity of Yucca Mountain during and up to 10,000 years after the repository closes. The overall annual dose limit takes into account exposure through all pathways. After 10,000 years through the period of geologic stability (out to 1 million years) the individual-protection standard is set at 100 mrem/yr.
The human-intrusion standard sets a dose limit of 15 millirem per year during and up to 10,000 years after the repository closes. It takes into account releases caused by a borehole going through a waste container and into the underlying ground water. After 10,000 years through the period of geologic stability (out to 1 million years) the standard is set at 100 mrem/yr.
Ground-Water Protection Standard
The original ground-water protection
standards provide the same
dose and concentration limits as EPA’s drinking
water standards. EPA included this standard to protect
the aquifer underlying Yucca Mountain as a resource
for future generations. It was also included so that
the standards would be consistent with the Agency's
national policy for the protection of ground-water resources.
EPA did not alter the ground-water protection standard because the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit dismissed all challenges to the ground-water protection standard.
How do EPAs standards protect public health?
EPA's standards protect public health by limiting the radiation exposure to individuals living closest to the facility and most likely to be exposed to releases of radioactive material.
How will EPA's final standards protect the environment?
The proposed repository sits above an aquifer that is an important resource for the area surrounding Yucca Mountain. The aquifer is being used as a source of drinking water, as well as for irrigation for crops and watering of livestock. In the future, the aquifer could supply water to many more people in the surrounding areas.
EPA believes that protecting the ground water at and around Yucca Mountain is critical to preserving the quality of the water for this and future generations. To provide this protection, EPA's ground-water protection standards for Yucca Mountain use the same level of protection for radionuclides as established under the Safe Drinking Water Act for all U.S. drinking water supplies.
How did EPA develop the original standards?
Before EPA originally developed the final standards in 2001, the Agency took a number of preparatory steps:
- extensively studied and conducted analyses to fully understand the complex technical aspects of the Yucca Mountain repository
- requested recommendations from the National Academy of Sciences. In 1995, the Academy issued a report outlining recommendations for EPA's public health and environment standards for the site. EPA asked the public and other radiation experts for their comments on the NAS report.
- held technical discussions with DOE and NRC and worked with the President's Office of Science and Technology Policy
- considered other federal agencies' actions, other countries' regulations, and guidance from national and international organizations.
What was the effect of the lawsuit challenging the original standards?
Shortly after the final Yucca Mountain standards were issued, they were challenged by the nuclear industry, several environmental and public interest groups, and the State of Nevada. In July 2004, the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit upheld the standards on all counts except one: the 10,000-year time frame covered by the standards. All challenges to the ground-water standard were dismissed.
In its 1995 report, “Technical Bases for Yucca Mountain Standards,” the National Academy of Sciences recommended that compliance with the standard be measured at the time of peak risk, ”within the limits imposed by the long-term stability of the geologic environment, which is on the order of one million years.” As the Academy noted, calculations for Yucca Mountain show that “peak risks might occur tens- to hundreds-of-thousands of years or even farther into the future.”
In EPA’s 2001 final standards rulemaking, the Agency noted that it is not possible to make reliable estimates of the repository’s performance over such long time frames. In the face of these uncertainties, EPA adopted a 10,000-year compliance period, which is consistent with the time frame used for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico and for many international geologic disposal programs. However, EPA considered the peak dose estimates recommended in the NAS report as a valuable, general indicator of disposal system performance. To take advantage of their value, EPA required DOE to include them in its environmental impact statement.
However, the Court determined that the 10,000-year regulatory period (the period covered by the standards) was not “based upon and consistent with” the NAS report’s recommendation and vacated that portion of EPA’s Yucca Mountain standards.
- You can learn
more by reading the
Ruling of the US Court of Appeals for the
District of Columbia Circuit (PDF)
(100 pp, 573K About PDF)
When will the Yucca Mountain repository open?
DOE projects that the earliest the proposed repository could open and begin accepting waste is 2017 . Before than can happen:
- EPA must set its amended standards. (Promulgated on September 30, 2008)
- DOE must submit an application to the NRC for a license to construct the repository. (Submitted to NRC on June 3, 2008)
- NRC must revise its licensing requirements (10 CFR part 63) to be consistent with EPA's amended standards.
- If the NRC approves the application, DOE will construct the repository and apply to the NRC for a license to receive radioactive waste.
- NRC must determine that the site meets EPA's public health and environmental protection standards before issuing the license.
- For more information
on DOE's schedule
for Yucca Mountain visit their Office of Civilian
Radioactive Waste Management Web site.
How would the waste be transported to the repository?
DOE must meet Department of Transportation routing regulations and guidelines before shipping any radioactive waste to the Yucca Mountain repository.
The waste would be shipped in casks that are heavily shielded to contain the radioactive waste. The casks are certified by the NRC to withstand accidents, impact, puncture, and exposure to fire and water.
DOE's current plan is to transport the waste to Nevada by truck and rail. Transportation routes would go through 43 states. Prior to transporting waste, the federal government would work with state, local, and tribal governments to develop emergency response plans.
- DOE's Transporting Nuclear Waste web site
This site describes DOE's program for
developing shipping caskets, complying
with federal transportation regulations,
and providing assistance to emergency
response organizations in states
through which shipments to Yucca
Mountain will pass.