The Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management (OCRWM) oversaw one of the longest and most contentious projects in the Department of Energy (DOE): Yucca Mountain. Involving the underground burial of thousands of tons of radioactive waste, Yucca Mountain has been a controversial plan since the 1980s, with more than $15 billion spent on its development. OCRWM officials had hoped to begin storing nuclear waste at the site in southern Nevada by 2017, but the agency was shut down after the Yucca Mountain project was defunded in 2010. The OCRWM’s remaining functions were assumed by the DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy, and the Obama administration convened a panel of experts to develop nuclear waste disposal alternatives. The government requested “minimal” funding under OCRWM’s name to pay for various obligations as directed by the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (pdf).
From World War II until the end of the Cold War, the United States accumulated an enormous amount of nuclear waste. The highly radioactive material was a byproduct of both military and civilian nuclear programs in operation from the 1940s until the early 1990s. Military nuclear waste stemmed from the production of tens of thousands of nuclear warheads by the country’s nuclear weapons complex—a vast collection of government facilities that designed, fueled and assembled nuclear weapons. Civilian nuclear waste was produced by commercial power plants using nuclear reactors that generated electricity.
By the 1970s, the U,S, began approaching a critical juncture with its nuclear waste. Spent fuel rods, decommissioned reactors and various other radioactive refuse had piled up at more than one hundred sites across the country. Much of the waste was stored in special containers that were placed upright on concrete pads or stored horizontally in metal canisters in concrete bunkers. More than 100 million Americans resided within 75 miles of temporarily stored nuclear waste. By one account, the U.S. had 52,000 tons of radioactive spent fuel from commercial and defense nuclear reactors, 91 million gallons of high-level waste left over from plutonium processing, scores of tons of plutonium, more than half a million tons of depleted uranium, millions of cubic feet of contaminated tools, metal scraps, clothing, oils, solvents and other waste, as well as some 265 million tons of tailings from milling uranium ore.
This massive amount of waste represented a serious threat to human health, the environment and national security. Government officials and scientists began examining numerous solutions for permanently disposing of the waste, including burying it in the ocean floor, putting it in polar ice sheets, burying it on a remote island and blasting it into outer space.
Ocean floor disposal was based on the premise that radiation from the waste would not harm people or the environment. However, numerous obstacles stood in the way of this option. Recovering the waste, if necessary, would prove difficult, and gaining international approval for such a plan would have been extremely difficult. This hurdle became even more difficult when the United States signed the London Convention in October 1993 prohibiting disposal of radioactive materials at sea.
Scientists considered disposing of nuclear wastes in the ice sheet at Antarctica or Greenland, even though the Antarctic Treaty of 1959 prohibited disposing of radioactive waste on the Antarctic continent. This option would have involved placing waste containers on the ice surface or in a shallow hole where the heat from the waste would cause them to slowly melt to the bottom of the ice sheet. Cables would have allowed retrieval of the waste. Proponents liked the locations due to the lack of population and the stability and thickness of polar ice. As with the seabed option, transportation of the waste would have been a challenge. In addition, the discovery of changes in the polar ice masses due to global warming pretty much killed such an idea.
A third consideration involved finding a remote island upon which to bury the waste. Scientists, though, had a tough time finding a suitable candidate for remote island disposal. There was also the risk of transporting large amounts of waste by sea, something that was likely to draw international opposition. In spite of these obstacles, Finland is pursuing the option of disposing of its nuclear waste in a stable rock mass underneath a near-shore island.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Department of Energy (DOE) researched several methods of space disposal, which involved launching waste containers into orbit around the sun. This plan offered the attraction of permanently removing the waste from the planet. But the risk of an accident during launch made this option tricky, and the sheer number of launches required to get all the waste up into space would have made this plan extremely expensive.
Realizing a more earthly solution was in order, Congress adopted the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (pdf) in 1982 that established the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management (OCRWM). Charged with the task of locating a suitable location where the waste could be buried underground in the United States for 10,000 years, the OCRWM selected nine locations for consideration as potential sites, with the intention of ultimately selecting two repository locations, one in the east and one in the west. The nine sites were studied and preliminary studies were reported in 1985. Based on these reports, the list was reduced to three sites, all in the west: Hanford, Washington; Deaf Smith County, Texas; and Yucca Mountain, Nevada.
Even though the majority of nuclear waste was produced in the eastern half of the country, congressional opposition from East Coast representatives made it difficult to consider burying the waste east of the Mississippi. In 1987 Congress amended the Nuclear Waste Policy Act and directed DOE officials to study only one site—even though experts insisted that a single repository would not be sufficient to bury all of the accumulated waste. The chosen site was Yucca Mountain, located in Nye County, Nevada, about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, on the western edge of the Nevada Test Site. OCRWM scientists spent the 1990s studying the location and concluded it was ideal for a geologic repository because of the area’s dry climate, remoteness, stable geology, deep water table and closed water basin.
Despite these advantages, Yucca Mountain was opposed by environmentalists and the state of Nevada. Opponents offered their own scientific analyses of the site and raised questions about how earthquake activity in the region may affect storage of thousands of tons of nuclear waste underground. Another concern raised involved the question of seepage of radioactive waste into underground water supplies that might connect to the Colorado River, a major source of drinking water for Nevada, Arizona and California. These concerns left Yucca Mountain in limbo during the administration of President Bill Clinton, even though the Nuclear Waste Policy Act required the federal government to begin taking nuclear waste off the hands of industry by 1998. The act had also created a Nuclear Waste Fund that power companies were required to pay into to cover the cost of permanent disposal by the federal government. Failure to meet the 1998 deadline resulted in lawsuits being filed against DOE by the nuclear power industry claiming breach of contract.
With the election of George W. Bush, nuclear power companies, and proponents of Yucca Mountain, gained an important ally. A strong proponent of nuclear energy, Bush was sympathetic to the concerns of nuclear power companies that were paying the federal government for a service (nuclear waste disposal) that hadn’t taken place. A new argument also began being pushed to help get the project moving forward: terrorism. With thousands of containers spread out across the country above ground, administration officials argued what was there to stop terrorists from stealing some highly-enriched uranium and building a bomb with it? On July 23, 2002, President Bush signed House Joint Resolution 87, allowing the DOE to take the next step in establishing Yucca Mountain as the repository to store the United States' nuclear waste. This was done in spite of continued opposition by Nevada officials and environmentalists. In fact, only a few months before the passage of HJR 87, then-Gov. Kenny Guinn (R-Nevada) filed a notice of disapproval to stop the project. Congress overrode Guinn’s attempt to veto Yucca Mountain.
In June 2008, the OCRWM applied for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) license needed so Yucca Mountain could open for business by 2017.
In 2010, the Yucca Mountain project was defunded, bringing the OCRWM officially to an end the following year. Its remaining functions were assumed by the DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy. President Obama’s Blue Ribbon Commission, assembled to advise on nuclear waste disposal alternatives, released its final report (pdf) on January 26, 2012. About 72,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel are currently stored at both operating and closed reactors in 35 states, awaiting a disposal solution. More than $15 billion was spent on the Yucca Mountain project.
Located within the Department of Energy, the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management (OCRWM) was responsible for disposing of the nation’s civilian and military nuclear waste and spent nuclear fuel. To fulfill this mission, the OCRWM focused its work since its creation in the early 1980s on one very important project: Yucca Mountain. Located in southern Nevada, Yucca Mountain was primed to become the nation’s first geologic repository for the long-term burial of nuclear waste that has been piling up around the country for the past six decades. According to the OCRWM, the United States had accumulated 53,440 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel from nuclear reactors by 2005. In addition, military-related activities are expected to produce 22,000 canisters of solid radioactive waste for future disposal. Altogether, experts estimated that 135,000 tons of waste would end up being buried at the site.
Opening Yucca Mountain
Before Yucca Mountain could “open for business,” the OCRWM had to first receive a license from the NRC to verify that the project would adhere to all pertinent federal regulations for the safe disposal of nuclear waste. Obtaining a license was in itself a huge task for OCRWM. Everything hinged on obtaining NRC approval. Without it, the project could not proceed. When OCRWM would have submitted its application, which had been scheduled to happen in June 2008, the office would also have submitted its environmental impact statement (EIS). A draft of the EIS was released in October 2007 for public review and comment, but only after attorneys representing the state of Nevada successfully sued the OCRWM to make it release the draft. The public review period ended January 2008.
Nevada wins Yucca ruling: DOE told it must release draft copy of license application (by Keith Rogers, Las Vegas Review-Journal)
How it Works
If the project had gotten the green light from the NRC, the current design for Yucca Mountain called for spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste being shipped to the site by truck or rail in specially designed, shielded shipping containers beginning in 2017. Once at the site, the waste would be removed from the shipping containers and placed in double-layered, corrosion-resistant packages for burying underground. Special rail cars would carry them underground and remotely controlled equipment would place them on supports in an underground tunnel. Scientists would continue to monitor the waste after burial to ensure the repository was working as planned.
The OCRWM forged a multiple barrier approach to isolate the waste at Yucca Mountain. This approach was designed to prevent water from reaching the waste canisters which could cause them to dissolve and release the waste, allowing it to trickle down into underground water supplies, called aquifers. The multiple barrier approach uses natural barriers and engineered, or man-made, barriers to ensure the radioactive materials stay inside the repository, located about 1,000 feet below the earth’s surface and about 1,000 feet above the nearest water table.
The OCRWM’s Science and Technology Program oversaw research and testing intended to ensure the safety, performance and efficiency of the Yucca Mountain Repository. The program relied on information and research from national laboratories, universities and various industries for this work. Some of the laboratories involved were Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Los Alamos National Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratory.
In addition to preparing the site, OCRWM had to develop plans for the safe transport of nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain. To this end the office published its strategic plan that sought to address all possible issues related to nuclear waste transport. Those issues included selecting rail and highway routes in consultation with state and tribal governments that govern areas through which waste would travel; developing emergency response and planning procedures in case something went wrong; and providing proper security for shipments.
Yucca Mountain: Nuclear Waste in Nevada (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
The Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management (OCRWM) spent $60.4 million on contractor services between FY 2000 and FY 2010, according to USAspending.gov. The top five products or services it purchased were engineering and technical ($34,943,513), legal studies ($20,227,550), operation of miscellaneous government buildings ($4,900,000), program management/support ($350,000), and ADP & telecommunications ($5,308).
The top five contractors that provided products or services to the agency during that period were:
1. Legin Group Inc. $24,983,891
2. Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP $20,227,550
(See Controversies: Conflict of Interest)
3. Project Enhancement Corporation $9,959,622
4. USA Repository Services LLC $4,900,000
5. Information Millennium Group Inc. $350,000
OCRWM had a wide range of stakeholders who fell on either side of the Yucca Mountain debate. On the “pro” side was engineering giant Bechtel, the main contractor running the day-to-day operations at Yucca Mountain under a $2.4 billion contract. Bechtel bored some of the first tunnels at the site so scientists could study its geology and make other preparations for the project. A number of smaller contracts were awarded by the OCRWM to companies to provide a variety of services for the project.
A slew of energy corporations and utility companies were closely involved with the OCRWM because of the nuclear power plants (both operational and decommissioned ones) that these stakeholders own. These companies included Ohio Edison, the Tennessee Valley Authority, Duke Power (currently Duke Energy), Constellation Generation, Pacific Gas & Electric, Georgia Power Company, Southern California Edison and Exelon Corporation. Some of these companies, such as Exelon, filed lawsuits against OCRWM and DOE for failing to meet a 1998 deadline requiring the federal government to begin taking nuclear waste from power companies. Because no centralized repository has been established, these companies have had to store, at considerable cost, the spent nuclear fuel and other radioactive wastes at plant sites around the country. In the case of Exelon, their lead negotiator in the lawsuit, Edward Sproat, went on to become director of OCRWM (see Director).
General Electric and Westinghouse were also important stakeholders thanks to their long histories of developing and building nuclear reactors. A new player on the scene was UniStar Nuclear, a joint partnership involving Areva, a French-owned nuclear company, Constellation Energy, a Baltimore company that operates five reactors in Maryland and New York, and Bechtel.
Other corporate stakeholders included contractors that run nuclear research labs that the OCRWM utilized to conduct scientific studies for the project. These included Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratory (run by Lockheed Martin), Bechtel, BWX Technologies (now known as Babcock & Wilcox Technical Services Group) and Washington Group International (now operating as the Energy & Construction Division of URS Corporation of San Francisco).
The state of Nevada was another important stakeholder. Many Nevadans distrust the federal government following decades of nuclear testing at the Nevada Test Site during the Cold War. Given this history, Nevada officials have never embraced the idea of using Yucca Mountain to store nuclear waste, and numerous times the state has filed lawsuits against the federal government. One of the most recent was over the environmental impact statement by the DOE, claiming it failed to meet the National Environmental Policy Act’s requirements.
In addition to litigation, former Gov. Kenny Guinn (R) tried to stop the DOE from moving forward with licensing Yucca Mountain for operation by filing a notice of disapproval, as allowed under federal law. Congress overrode Guinn’s notice. Guinn laid out his reasons for opposing the project in a New York Times Op-Ed. With the departure of Guinn from the governor’s office, U.S. Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nevada), the Senate Majority Leader, took up the charge to keep Yucca Mountain from opening in his state.
There were also a large number of heavily populated urban centers that could have been affected by Yucca Mountain if nuclear waste had been shipped to it. First and foremost was Las Vegas, one of the fastest-growing cities in America, which sits only 100 miles southeast of Yucca Mountain. If most of the nuclear waste moved by rail, the most affected city outside Nevada would have been Chicago, where shipments from the East Coast would have to have been consolidated, then re-routed to Yucca Mountain. “One out of every three rail shipments would go through the metropolitan Chicago area,” said Robert Halstead, currently the executive director of the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects (NANP), in a 60 Minutes interview. “One out of every six rail shipments would actually go through downtown Chicago within a mile or so of Lake Michigan and the Art Institute.” According to Halstead, nuclear waste shipments would also have traveled through or near cities including Buffalo, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Omaha, Atlanta, Nashville, St. Louis, Kansas City and Salt Lake City.
Environmental and anti-nuclear organizations kept watch on Yucca Mountain, including the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, a worldwide clearinghouse for environmentalists and anti-nuclear activists, the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, World Resources Institute, the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Federation of American Scientists and the Environmental Defense Fund.
A Refusal To Take Nuclear Waste (by Kenny Guinn, New York Times)
In 2005 it was discovered that scientific research conducted during the 1990s for Yucca Mountain was falsified by government geologists. The controversy involved emails from three members of the United States Geological Survey (USGS) showing some data was fabricated related to water infiltration into Yucca Mountain tunnels. The revelation led to investigations by the FBI and the Inspector General for Department of Energy (DOE) and the Department of the Interior.
The emails were written in the 1998-2000 time period, but were not disclosed to senior DOE officials until March 2005. The investigations found that the emails were read by at least one USGS supervisor and one quality assurance official at the time they were written, but the contents appear to have gone unchallenged.
The three employees were not brought up on charges.
U.S. Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nevada) was outraged by the email scandal. “The science that DOE claims is supporting Yucca Mountain is sloppy, and in some cases it’s actually false,” Reid told the Environmental News Service. “That’s a much bigger concern than whether a couple of employees will go to jail. The Yucca Mountain project is a complete failure. It has failed every legitimate health, safety, and scientific test. I’m going to continue working to stop Yucca Mountain altogether.”
No Criminal Charges in Yucca Mountain Email Science Scandal (Environment News Service)
More Fallout from Email Scandal
Once it was revealed that important scientific data on the project was tainted by the email scandal, OCRWM was forced to spend $13 million to produce a new analysis of how much water might filter into Yucca Mountain tunnels. The new study was criticized by a government oversight board, the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board (NWTRB), which concluded it could not support a rebuilt computer model that OCRWM was relying on to gain an operating license from the NRC.
The review board concluded in a 30-page report that a reworked water infiltration model assembled by DOE and Sandia National Laboratories did not consider all available data, was not calibrated with other site information and did not consider likely significant evaporation. The model estimated the rates of seepage into the Nevada mountain and down 1,000 feet where highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel would be stored and would need to remain safe and dry for thousands of years.
Revised estimates of water flow rates were about three times higher in the Sandia model and less consistent with other evidence compiled at the site, the board said. This led Congressman John Porter (R-Nevada) to conclude that DOE may have shortcut the research in order to stay on schedule for submitting the application license to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).
Yucca Mountain Research Leaves Doubt: Reworked Prediction on Water Criticized (by Steve Tetreault, Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Hundreds of Challenges
The OCRWM was originally scheduled to submit its application to the NRC for a license in 2004, but the email scandal and other troubles delayed the submission. Nevada officials announced in February 2008 that anywhere from 250 to 650 “contentions” could have been filed once OCRWM submitted its application.
As of 2013, with the OCRWM long out of the picture, there are more than 200 challenges on file against the Yucca Mountain project, which could take four to five years to process. Robert Halstead of the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects (NANP) said the battle isn’t over yet, but believes that the project will finally collapse, even if it is “a [slow] and lingering death.”
Yucca Mountain: License Challenges could Exceed 650: Agency Prepares to Review Construction Application (by Steve Tetreault, Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Decades-long Yucca Mountain Battle could flare up (by Matt Woolbright, Associated Press)
Conflict of Interest
In April 2008 the Inspector General (IG) for DOE reported that DOE had hired a law firm with ties to nuclear power companies to represent the government’s effort to obtain a license from the NRC. The firm, Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP, has represented more than a dozen utilities suing the government for missing the 1998 deadline to take nuclear waste off industry hands.
DOE officials justified the $100 million contract, saying Morgan Lewis was the only firm with adequate experience for the job, and that safeguards were put in place against the conflicts. But the IG’s office report (pdf) concluded that DOE's decision-making was not fully documented and could not be fully reviewed. The IG stopped short of recommending that the contract be canceled.
Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nevada) blasted the contract, calling it a “sweetheart deal” that blatantly violated DOE policies.
Law firm's Yucca Pact with DOE Criticized: Inspectors say Agency Ignored Conflicts, documentation (by Steve Tetreault, Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Warren F. “Pete” Miller, Jr. was selected by President Barack Obama to fill two posts that oversee each end of nuclear energy—supplying it and storing its waste. First, Miller was nominated to be Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy in the Department of Energy, and about a week later, he was also chosen to serve as director of Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management. Industry observers believe Miller’s latter role will involve carrying out Obama’s wishes to end the controversial project to store nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. Miller was confirmed by the Senate for the first position on August 7, 2009, but his confirmation for the radioactive waste role was held up by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), who opposes the closing of Yucca Mountain.
Bush picks Sproat for Yucca post: Nominee is nuclear industry veteran (by Steve Tetreault, Las Vegas Review-Journal)