USA : Country Update : November 2018

With the mid-term elections over, there has been a surge of political and media interest around the country in Yucca Mountain, with most voices urging action and funding.  The signs are that after a decade of stalling, Congress may start moving forward with the Yucca Mountain disposal facility.

Overwhelming public, political and media support

A post-elections public opinion poll reveals that sorting out radioactive waste is an energy priority for 67% of US voters.  With long-standing and overwhelming bipartisan support for Yucca Mountain in the House of Representatives, and a changed dynamic in the US Senate, there are indications that the new US Congress may take action that has been side-stepped for the past decade.

Environmental groups have written to congressional leaders urging them not to pass ill-thought through legislation, and the Nevada congressional caucus are girding-up for a fight.  However, a broad coalition of trades unions, state public service commissioners, clean energy organisations, and energy trade associations have also written to congressional leaders, urging them to act, saying failure to progress is no longer tenable as the financial liabilities continue to mount.

Doing nothing will cost more than doing something

The financial imperative, as well as the desire of 49 states to remove radioactive waste from their land for final disposal, is driving the will to act.  A recent analysis by the Nuclear Energy Institute suggests that the costs of not building a repository may soon exceed the costs of building it.  Public desire for action is expressed in post-elections newspaper editorials in places as far apart as Indiana in the Midwest and Connecticut in New England.

Yucca Mountain is also used as a prime example of how the federal government can save money while still progressing critical infrastructure investment, because spending money on the site will mitigate or off-set compensation payments to communities where waste is now being stored indefinitely pending progress on a permanent repository.

A New Congress

Congressional inaction in recent years has been entirely due to the US Senate.  The House of Representatives has consistently and overwhelming given bipartisan support for Yucca Mountain.  The last time the House voted on legislation, in May this year, the vote was 340-72 in favour.  The Democrats midterm electoral success in securing a majority in the House will make little difference to this bipartisan support — if only because at Congressional District-level the voters want radioactive waste removed and disposed.

The US Senate blocked Yucca mountain funding because the Republicans had a slim one-seat majority, and needed to protect the Republican Senator from Nevada, Dean Heller, who was seen as the most vulnerable incumbent up for re-election.  Heller lost his seat, but the Republicans increased their Senate majority.  The enlarged Republican majority now have no reason to protect the Nevada Senator — indeed, they probably want to make the new Democrat Senator Jacky Rosen look as ineffective as possible in her opposition to Yucca.

Senator Rosen may also have difficulty in convincing other Democrat Senators to invest political capital in opposing Yucca.  There are well-organised and vocal community groups across the country wanting radioactive waste from decommissioned plants to be removed as quickly as possible.  Previously it was possible for Democrat Senators to blame the Republican majority for blocking action on waste disposal.  But most Democrat Senators will come under pressure from their own constituents to press ahead with Yucca, and some, like Bernie Sanders, have been vocal supporters of geological disposal.

But anything can happen in the wheeling and dealing over the coming months, when the primary focus of the House will be on exercising effective oversight of the President and addressing wider social issues such as healthcare.

Temporary storage facilities

Pending progress on a permanent repository, two proposals have been put forward to build temporary storage facilities for spent fuel and higher-activity radioactive waste.  These facilities, in New Mexico and West Texas, are designed to allow waste from sites around the country to be removed and temporarily stored until a permanent repository is opened.  The proposals will need regulatory and Congressional approval.

Although having broad-based local political, business and community support, there remains significant opposition to both the proposed sites.

This specific opposition is exacerbated by public concerns elsewhere in America, about Holtec International’s plans to purchase nuclear plants which are being decommissioned.  Holtec claim they can decommission more quickly and cost-effectively, and transport the waste away to their proposed temporary waste facility in New Mexico.  Local community groups wanting waste removed as quickly as possible, don’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth, but worry that Holtec’s proposals are possibly too good to be true.

Reclassification of Radioactive Waste

The US Energy Department is consulting on proposed changes in the way radioactive waste is categorised.  The historic categorisation is based on where the material comes from rather than its actual radioactive properties.  By reclassifying waste based on its actual radiation risk rather than on which part of a nuclear reactor it comes from, would allow more waste to be treated immediately and reduce the amount of waste that needs to be stored for eventual disposal.

There has been opposition to the proposal, but the proposal is backed, and has been promoted by the Energy Communities Alliance, an association of local councils and municipalities.


  • There was an underground rockfall at WIPP on 15 November.  There were no injuries nor any radiation release.  The rockfall had been anticipated and the affected area was being monitored.  However, WIPP management left themselves exposed to subsequent media and public scorn after having to admit that there was stored waste in the vicinity of the rockfall, despite initially saying there was not (15, 16 & 20 Nov)
  • The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) have concluded that WIPP does not have the physical capacity, and that the facility’s  legal capacity should be increased to accommodate the disposal of 34 metric tons of plutonium, as proposed by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). (28 & 30 Nov)
  • Media reports on the massive new fans required for WIPP’s new ventilation system (14 & 20 Nov).
  • Nuclear Waste Partnership, the contractor that oversees daily WIPP operations, has appointed Gene Balsmeier as WIPP’s new Chief Operating Officer (6 Dec).


  • There is less than US$500k “unobligated” cash remaining in the federal fund for research of the proposed Yucca Mountain radioactive waste disposal facility. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) have said there is not much further they can now do without additional funding from Congress (5 Nov)
  • Union of Concerned Scientists shift their opinion on nuclear: while still concerned about radioactive waste management, say environmental priority is to reduce carbon emissions (8 Nov)
  • Ongoing community concern about safety of proposed interim storage facilities on the beach at San Onofre (15 & 27 Nov)
  • Public concern and scepticism, despite reassurances from authorities, that California wildfires may have spread radioactive contamination from old nuclear research sites (17 Nov)
  • National Conference of State Legislators Nuclear Legislative Working Group discuss policy regarding the cleanup of nuclear facilities and the storage, disposal and transportation of nuclear waste (21 Nov)
  • Media report on joint community/operator action to protect critical water aquifer under Idaho National Laboratory and build public confidence, because radioactive waste cannot be moved to a permanent disposal facility (25 Nov)
  • Map published showing sites where radioactive waste is kept in interim surface stores pending geological disposal (9 Nov)