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Waste Management: 

Background on Proposed Facility at Yucca Mountain

Yucca Mountain Standards

This fact sheet provides basic background information on the proposed Yucca Mountain facility and EPA’s role in the process.

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What is EPA’s role at Yucca Mountain?

Congress has approved the Yucca Mountain site as a candidate for disposal of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste in a centralized underground facility, and has established key roles for various Federal agencies to ensure safety of any radioactive waste disposal there.

EPA’s role is to set standards that will protect public health and the environment from the risks of radioactive material proposed for disposal at Yucca Mountain for up to 1 million years after the facility closes. Yucca Mountain will not be allowed to open unless it meets EPA’s requirements.

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What is Yucca Mountain?

If built, the proposed facility at Yucca Mountain will become the final disposal site for all of the spent nuclear fuel and high-level nuclear waste produced in the U.S.  Currently, spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste is stored above ground at more than seventy locations in two-thirds of the states, including commercial nuclear power plants and 5 U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) facilities. If built, the proposed facility at Yucca Mountain will become the final disposal site for all of the spent nuclear fuel and high-level nuclear waste produced in the U.S. The proposed facility is a geologic repository, meaning that it will store packaged waste deep below the Earth’s surface in an underground tunnel.

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What are the radioactive wastes proposed for disposal at Yucca Mountain?

Ninety percent of the waste proposed for disposal at the Yucca Mountain facility consists of spent nuclear fuel. Spent nuclear fuel is produced as a waste product by nuclear reactors present in commercial nuclear power plants, government reactors, and naval propulsion plant reactors.

The remaining 10% of wastes proposed for disposal at Yucca Mountain consists of high-level radioactive waste, which is produced from the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel.

These materials contain radioactive elements such as cesium, strontium, technetium, and neptunium. While some of these will remain radioactive for only a few years, others will be radioactive for millions of years.

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What must happen before Yucca Mountain can open?

Before the DOE could open a geologic repository at Yucca Mountain and begin waste emplacement, the following must happen:

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Timeline of Key Activities Relating to Yucca Mountain

1978 – DOE begins studying Yucca Mountain to determine if it is suitable for a permanent repository for the nation’s high-level nuclear waste.

1982 – The Nuclear Waste Policy Act instructs the DOE to carry out further studies of locations for a geologic repository.

1987 – The Nuclear Waste Policy Act Amendments direct DOE to continue studying only Yucca Mountain as a potential disposal site.

1992 – The Energy Policy Act directs EPA to develop standards for a high level nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, based on scientific findings and recommendations of the National Academy of Sciences.

1995 – The National Academy of Sciences releases technical recommendations on which EPA based its standards.

2001- EPA issues a set of standards, designed to protect human health and the environment from risks of radioactive material if it is disposed at Yucca Mountain.

July 2002 – President Bush approves the Yucca Mountain site for development of a high-level nuclear waste facility.

July 2004 – The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit rules that the timeframe of EPA’s Yucca Mountain standards is inconsistent with technical advice from the National Academy of Sciences.

August 2005 – EPA releases proposed changes to Yucca Mountain standards that extend protection to 1 million years.

September 2008 - After reviewing and considering public comments, EPA issues the final Yucca Mountain standards.

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