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May 6, 2015

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Yucca Mountain

Workers enter the main tunnel of Yucca Mountain.

Photo by Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

Workers enter the main tunnel of Yucca Mountain.

One of the hottest subjects in Nevada is whether the federal government will go through with long-time plans to build a repository for radioactive nuclear waste at Yucca, which is about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

If Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has anything to say about it, it won't be built.

Reid, who has slowed down and blocked the project was able to slash more than $100 million out of the budget for the Yucca Mountain repository project before the end of 2007.

How did Nevada, which has no nuclear power plants of its own, come to be viewed as the spot to store all spent radioactive waste from the country's 100-plus nuclear power plants?

The Department of Energy has had its eye on Yucca since 1978.

That's when the DOE looked at a 1957 recommendation by the National Academy of Sciences that found the best way to dispose of nuclear waste was to place it inside rocks deep underground.

The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 established a program that put the DOE in charge of finding, building and operating an underground waste repository.

In 1985, the DOE gave President Reagan a choice of six potential sites. Reagan picked three for further study: in the states of Washington, Texas and Nevada.

Then in 1987, Congress approved a bill, known as the "Screw Nevada Bill," in which the DOE was to concentrate solely on Yucca Mountain as the national site.

The bill amended the Nuclear Waste Policy Act to say that if Yucca Mountain is ever found unsuitable, then the DOE would find a new storage site.

The DOE expected to open the repository and receive waste in January 1998, but delays have continually pushed the date back.

In 2002, President George W. Bush signed the House Joint Resolution 87 which allowed the DOE to start construction on the repository.

The Yucca Mountain facility is designed to continue further study and research the mountain. It has a large U-shaped tunnel that's five miles long and 25 feet wide. There are several large alcoves that are designed to house most of the scientific research in the mountain. There are also smaller tunnels intersecting with the main tunnel called galleries that will store the nuclear waste.

The actual waste repository site will span 1,150 acres, be 1,000 feet under the mountain's surface and also be 1,000 feet above the water table. A water table is the point where the water pressure equals the atmospheric pressure. In Nevada's case, the water table is the surface of the groundwater below the mountain.

In 2006, the DOE chose March 31, 2017, as the opening date for the Yucca Mountain Repository, and on that day 39 states would send their spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste from the 126 nuclear sites around the country.

But the political winds changed in 2006.

Reid, a long time opponent of Yucca Mountain, became the Senate Majority Leader after Democrats took control of the Senate. And since that time, he has been able to slow down and block the project. Reid has called the project dead.

Yucca Mountain is located inside the Nevada Test Site in Nye County, Nevada, and is actually a ridge comprised of volcanic rock. Because of the material that the volcanic rock is made of, some experts believe that it is perfect to hold the waste long enough for it to decay. The exact time it takes for nuclear waste to decay is unknown, but some estimate it can take over 100,000 years.

One concern is that the waste units will inevitably fail and that the waste will slowly seep out into the underground water supply before it can fully decay. Another concern is the mountain's seismic activity. Yucca Mountain does sit on tectonic deformation, but according to the DOE, the activity is so low that it won't affect the repository.

The mountain sits on federally protected land within the test site, and is currently controlled by the DOE, the U.S. Air Force and the Bureau of Land Management.

No one lives at Yucca Mountain, yet in 1987, the Nevada Legislature established the 144-square mile Bullfrog County around Yucca Mountain. It was designed so federal money would get sent to the whole state, instead of just Nye County. The closest year-round housing for the site is about 14 miles south in Amargosa Valley.

— Sun new media intern Stephanie Kishi compiled this report.

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