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Waste Management: 

About Yucca Mountain Standards

Yucca Mountain Standards

Yucca Mountain is the Department of Energy’s potential geologic repository designed to store and dispose of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste. If approved, the site would be the nation’s 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?

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.

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What is EPA’s 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.

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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:

Part 197 contains three standards for the disposal of radioactive waste at Yucca Mountain:

Individual-Protection Standard

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.

Human-Intrusion Standard

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.

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How do EPA’s 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.

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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.

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How did EPA develop the original standards?

Before EPA originally developed the final standards in 2001, the Agency took a number of preparatory steps:

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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.

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When will the Yucca Mountain repository open?

DOE projects that the earliest the proposed repository could open and begin accepting waste is 2017 Exit EPA Disclaimer. Before than can happen:

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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.

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