Repurposing Yucca Mountain won't be easy

Yucca Mountain, a two-hour drive from Las Vegas, was the proposed site of the nation's nuclear waste repository.

Story highlights

  • Former would-be nuclear dump site in Nevada looking for a new career
  • Government Accountability Office lists 30 possible uses for the site
  • Some would still deal with nuclear material, which led to controversy in the first place
  • The GAO also lists the numerous "challenges" facing any potential user
How's this for a real estate buzz kill?
Available: Mountain property. Convenient to nowhere. Accessible via deteriorating roads. Features one mountain containing a 5-mile U-shaped tunnel, going nowhere. Use the railroad tracks in the tunnel at your own risk. On-site buildings do not meet OSHA standards. Must be willing to deal with three government landlords. Property encumbered by lawsuits galore.
That, in essence, is a description of Yucca Mountain, Nevada.
For 30 years, the mountain was the presumed site of the nation's nuclear waste repository. Billions were spent studying and preparing the mountain to receive used fuel from the nation's 103 commercial nuclear power plants.
But after the Obama administration killed plans for the nuclear dump, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nevada, asked the Government Accountability Office to look for other uses for the 230-square-mile site a two-hour drive from Las Vegas.
On Monday, the GAO released a list of 30 alternative uses for Yucca Mountain.
Some of the proposals will hearten advocates of the old nuclear repository plan while infuriating its opponents. Fully 10 suggestions involve nuclear storage, research or generation. Suggestions include making Yucca an "interim" storage site for nuclear waste (as opposed to a permanent storage site), a nuclear waste reprocessing plant, a research reactor site, a nuclear power plant or an air-cooled underground nuclear reactor.
Other suggestions include making Yucca:
-- A commercial energy park for nuclear, solar and wind power generation.
-- A command center for unmanned aerial vehicles.
-- A training site for first responders.
-- A secure data storage site.
-- A strategic petroleum reserve for the western part of the country.
-- A facility for research on highly infectious diseases.
-- A university to teach mining techniques.
The GAO did not endorse the proposals or rank them. Nor was there broad consensus among the experts on how Yucca could best be used.
But the GAO did catalog the numerous "challenges" facing any potential user.
Chief among them, said report author Frank Rusco, is a lawsuit seeking to reverse the administration's decision to kill the nuclear repository project. Nothing is likely to happen until that lawsuit is resolved, said Rusco, who is with the GAO's natural resources and environment team.
In its investigation, the GAO also discovered another potential obstacle that apparently had escaped the attention of government regulators. After the Obama administration killed the waste dump plan, individuals or corporations filed 35 mining claims for the property, some of them directly over the Yucca Mountain tunnels.
The GAO brought those claims to the attention of the Bureau of Land Management, which has since voided them, Rusco said. But litigation is possible, he added.
Another impediment is that the land falls under the control of three federal agencies: the Bureau of Land Management, the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense. And potential users may be limited by national security activities on adjacent lands.
Rusco said that several experts consulted by the GAO noted there is land elsewhere that would also fulfill their needs, and that they would rather build a project "from scratch" than retrofit an existing tunnel.
Currently, the mountain contains the 5-mile tunnel, with two entrances on the east side of the mountain. A 2-mile tunnel branches off of the main tunnel.
Any agency with an interest in Yucca will find one other obstacle: getting into the facility. When the government shut down the site, it closed access and shut down utilities and a system used to ventilate radon gas. GAO investigators decided to forgo a visit to the mountain after learning that reopening the tunnel for a day would cost $20,000 to $50,000.