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Yucca Mountain Timeline 1982 - 2004

1982 – Congress passes the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, requiring the establishment of a deep geologic repository for nuclear waste storage and isolation. The legislation stipulates the significance of geologic and hydrologic conditions in selecting a repository site and mandates the consideration of at least five sites in two or more types of geologic media. Two repositories are to be developed, one on each side of the country, to ensure regional equity. A detailed selection and evaluation process is to be carried out by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). The Nuclear Waste Fund is established to finance this process. Companies that own and operate nuclear power plants are required to pay into the fund via a fee on electricity they generate; the companies pass the cost to ratepayers.

1984 – The DOE issues site suitability guidelines for a repository based on the requirements of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. The guidelines are comprehensive and contain qualifying and disqualifying factors for sites based on the act.

1986 – From nine potential repository sites named in 1983, the DOE nominates five candidate sites. Of these, three are selected for further investigation. These sites, all in the West, are Hanford, Washington; Deaf County, Texas; and Yucca Mountain, Nevada. After announcing the selection of these sites, the DOE suspends efforts to develop a second repository in the East.

1987 – Congress amends the 1982 legislation, stopping the repository selection process in its infancy. Yucca Mountain, about 80 miles north of Las Vegas, is designated as the only site to be considered further. Research on granite rock, and efforts to develop a second repository in the East, are abruptly halted.

1996 – As evidence mounts indicating the ability of water to move rapidly through the volcanic rock at Yucca Mountain, it becomes increasingly clear that Yucca Mountain does not have the natural geological and hydrological characteristics necessary to serve as a “primary barrier” in containing radioactive waste. As a result, there is an increasing reliance on engineered barriers in the proposal for containing waste at Yucca Mountain.

2000 – After several years of proposals and rulemaking, the DOE issues new site suitability guidelines for Yucca Mountain. These new guidelines are very vague, focusing on “balancing favorable and unfavorable conditions,” and do not include many requirements of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. Under these guidelines, factors that qualify or disqualify Yucca Mountain from development as a repository are no longer specified.

2001 – In January, several environmental and public interest organizations, including Public Citizen, together with the state of Nevada, file lawsuits against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The state of Nevada also files lawsuits against the U.S. government, the DOE and the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), challenging the Yucca Mountain project on many grounds.

In February, Bechtel SAIC becomes the primary management and operations contractor at Yucca Mountain. Its five-year, $3.1 billion contract includes $133.2 million in various awards and performance incentives for meeting deadlines and performing work to certain standards. This arrangement gives the company a clear and significant interest in the regulatory approval of the repository and the completion of the project as quickly as possible.

In November, Winston and Strawn, a law firm contracted by the DOE to work on the Yucca Mountain license application – which must be filed by the DOE with the NRC before the dump can be built – is revealed to be a registered member of and lobbyist for the Nuclear Energy Institute, the pro-repository nuclear industry trade group. More than a dozen Winston and Strawn personnel are shown to have billed for work on both matters. Facing significant criticism, the firm resigns from the Yucca Mountain project, but the firm’s work is not withdrawn.

2002 – On Feb. 14, then-Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham officially recommends to President Bush that a nuclear waste repository be developed at Yucca Mountain. The president approves the recommendation the next day. Two months later, Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn issues a Notice of Objection, which serves as a veto to the site recommendation. By July, both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate override Nevada’s objection with a majority vote, and so   Congress designates Yucca Mountain as the site for the nation’s first nuclear waste repository. The DOE begins work on its license application to the NRC.

2003 – The Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board releases a report in November expressing concerns about the high temperature of the proposed repository. The board states that with humid conditions and salts present at the site, the design would likely cause spent fuel canisters to corrode within the first 1,000 years after the repository closes, with possible leakage occurring either during or after this initial period. In July 2004, the board determines, based on additional information from the DOE, that corrosion during the first 1,000 years may be unlikely, but that more research is needed about the potential for corrosion after the period. The board also recommends more research on two other potentially corrosive compounds in the tunnels, as well as more tests under conditions similar to those in the tunnel.

2004 – Serious questions remain concerning key technical issues at Yucca Mountain. These questions focus on the geology and hydrology of the site and the corrosion of waste packages within the repository.

In July, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, ruling on the 2001 lawsuits, finds the EPA’s 10,000-year compliance period for radiation protection at Yucca Mountain to be illegal. As a result, the EPA must reissue its compliance period rule. The NRC also must reissue its licensing rule, which is based on the EPA’s regulations.

In November, the DOE announces that it will not submit its Yucca Mountain license application to the NRC in December 2004 as planned. A revised schedule for the project is expected to be released by February 2005.

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