If you’ve never lived in Nevada, it’s easy to imagine Yucca Mountain as very close to the middle of nowhere. To get there from Las Vegas, you have to drive northwest into the desert for two and a half hours. At the intersection of Routes 95 and 373, you take a right into the Nevada Test Site, where the government conducted nuclear bomb tests, and pass through a security gate. You then drive another 30 kilometers past Little Skull Mountain and through Jackass Flats, until you come to a small sign that says “Top of Yucca Mountain,” at which point you turn left onto a gravel road and head upward.
At the top, you’ll find two concrete benches, a rusty sign proclaiming the altitude in meters and feet (1,507.5 and 4,946, respectively), a decrepit National Weather Service trailer, a porta-potty, and a view of nothing but scrub brush, arid buttes and the occasional volcanic cone. At nine in the morning on a typical sun-blessed August day, it’s already hot enough to cause sunstroke, if not imminent heat exhaustion-although it is a dry heat, to put it mildly. The mountain gets less than 20 centimeters of rain a year, and only about a centimeter sticks around long enough to soak into the soil and percolate down through the mountain.
It’s this combination of aridness and desolation-Nye County, NV, the home of Yucca Mountain, has a population density of less than one person per square kilometer-and the fact that the locals have already put up with decades of nuclear-weapons testing that convinced the U.S. Department of Energy in the mid-1980s that Yucca Mountain might be an ideal location for storing in perpetuity the nation’s accumulation of spent nuclear fuel. Since then, DOE scientists and contractors have dug an eight-kilometer-long, 7.6-meter-in-diameter tunnel down into the mountain, spent over $3 billion studying the local geology to make sure waste won’t leak from the mountain, and worked their way, with the vigorous help of the U.S. Congress, into a political, financial and public-relations quagmire so seemingly hopeless that no amount of technological wizardry or political gamesmanship is likely to resolve it. “It’s not clear what kind of political action will be necessary to get Congress to say, All right, we’re right to go ahead with Yucca Mountain,’” says John Ahearne, a former director of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. “But one thing you can certainly say is Yucca Mountain is not going to be going forward rapidly.”
For the past quarter-century, the failure to dispose of the nation’s accumulating nuclear waste has been the single most damaging public-acceptance problem for the nuclear industry and perhaps the primary reason that no new nuclear power plants are likely to be built for the foreseeable future, notwithstanding any additional power shortages of the kind that struck California last summer. At the moment, 103 nuclear plants are operating in the United States, generating about 20 percent of the nation’s electricity and accumulating spent fuel at a rate of 2,000 metric tons each year. They have amassed over 40,000 metric tons so far-enough to cover a football field to a depth of nearly five meters-and it’s all booked for burial in Yucca Mountain, should the project ever emerge from its morass.