Timeline: 1954 – 2014
    Nuclear Waste Policy Dilemma

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1954  The Atomic Energy Act is passed by Congress directing the federal government to promote the peaceful use of atomic energy, with the understanding that disposal of the highly radioactive waste produced would be the responsibility of the federal government.

1956  The National Academy of Sciences recommends deep geologic disposal of the long-lived, highly radioactive wastes from nuclear reactors, suggesting that buried salt deposits and other rock types be investigated for permanent repositories.

1960  In the early 1960s, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) announces that a salt mine at Lyons, Kansas, will be developed as a high-level radioactive waste repository, only to reverse its decision after state geologists discover the site is riddled with abandoned oil and gas exploration boreholes.

1975  The Energy Research and Development Administration (formerly AEC) begins to search for a possible permanent repository for the nation's nuclear waste. A multiple site survey emphasizing buried salt deposits and federal nuclear facility sites is conducted in 36 states, including Nevada, but is reduced in scope due to decreased funding and political opposition from states.

1980  Deep geologic disposal is selected by the Department of Energy (formerly ERDA) in an Environmental Impact Statement as the preferred alternative for permanent disposal of commercial high-level nuclear waste.

1982  Congress passes Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 (NWPA) which establishes a repository site screening process; requires two repositories to assure regional equity; sets a schedule leading to federal waste acceptance for disposal beginning in 1998; starts the Nuclear Waste Fund to pay for the waste program with fees collected on the generation of electricity from nuclear power plants; and requires that the repositories be licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

1983  The DOE names nine previously screened potential repository sites in six states: seven in salt deposits and two on western federal nuclear facility sites (including the Nevada Test Site) in volcanic rock deposits. Critics claim the sites were recycled from the 1975 search, and that the NWPA requires DOE to conduct a new screening process rather than proceed with sites considered prior to the passage of the NWPA. DOE slows down its process to involve the states and federal agencies in a more consultative process.

1986  The DOE issues final Environmental Assessments and nominates five candidate repository sites from the original nine, and then selects three western sites -- in Nevada, Texas, and Washington -- for detailed investigation, from which one is to be selected for repository licensing.

1986  The DOE indefinitely postpones the second repository siting program, violating the regional equity intent of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, after much objection from states in the northern mid-west and east where potentially acceptable repository sites in granite are prohibited.

1987  Congress amends the NWPA, designating Yucca Mountain, Nevada as the sole repository site to be characterized. Two other sites are removed from consideration, the screening process for a second repository site is ended, and studies of repository sites in granite are prohibited.

1988  DOE holds public hearings on their site characterization plan for Yucca Mountain.

1991  Surface studies begin at the Yucca Mountain site

1993  DOE begins grading work on first phase of the Exploratory Studies Facility at the proposed repository site. DOE also formulates a new Program Approach that sets waste acceptance to begin in 2010, relies on DOE's development and distribution of Multi-Purpose Canisters to begin interim waste storage in 1998, sets a site characterization schedule which defers some work to a repository performance confirmation period lasting up to 100 years after waste emplacement begins.

1994  Portal entrance to the Exploratory Studies Facility is constructed and tunneling into Yucca Mountain begins. Critics charge that the portal ramps and entrance are constructed for use as a repository, not a study area.

1995  Tunnel boring machine makes progress into Yucca Mountain but encounters loose ground at various points. Five miles of tunnels are planned for the study area by 1996. Bills are pending in Congress that re-prioritize the waste program to emphasize interim waste storage and transportation, with site characterization as a lower priority.

1997  Thermal testing begins at Yucca Mountain. It is scheduled to take eight years.

1998  DOE fails to meet its January deadline for waste acceptance. Lawsuits are filed by states and the nuclear industry. Legislation that would put an interim storage facility on the Nevada Test Site dies in Congress. The Yucca Mountain Viability Assessment is released in December with DOE declaring the site "viable" but admitting that much work still needs to be done before the site can be officially recommended in 2001.

1999  Bills emphasizing interim spent fuel storage at the Nevada Test Site are again introduced in the US Congress with President Clinton vowing to veto any such legislation. The Draft Environmental Impact Statement for Yucca Mountain is released for public comment in August.

2000  Due to concerns that the EPA's role in setting radiation standards would be too limited, President Clinton again vetoes nuclear waste legislation passed by Congress. The site characterization project continues at Yucca Mountain as DOE prepares the Final Environmental Impact Statement and nears the point where suitability must ultimately be decided.

2001  EPA announces proposed radiation standards for Yucca Mountain. The State of Nevada files suit against the EPA, arguing the standards are inadequate. DOE is forced to investigate allegations of collusion between itself, its contractors, and the nuclear power industry to promote the repository. The release of the final Environmental Impact Statement is delayed until late 2001.

2002  Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham recommends Yucca Mountain as a suitable site to President George W. Bush. Bush approves the recommendation. Nevada Governor Kenny Guinn exercises the State's right to veto the Yucca Mountain project. The project moves to Congress, where a simple majority in both houses is needed to overturn Guinn's veto. Yucca Mountain is debated and passed first in the House of Representatives and then more narrowly in the Senate. President Bush signs the joint resolution into law, officially designating Yucca Mountain as the nation's nuclear waste repository site. DOE begins work on its application for a license to build and run the repository. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) identifies 293 technical issues DOE must solve before submitting the license application. The State of Nevada files major lawsuits against DOE, NRC, Bush, and Abraham.

2003  DOE continues work on its license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The project, however, is over-budget and behind schedule. Nevada's lawsuits against the Yucca Mountain repository are set for oral arguments in front of the D.C. Court of Appeals in January 2004. DOE is scheduled to release a nuclear waste transportation plan sometime in the fall.

2004  The U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. throws out the EPA's 10,000 year radiation standard for Yucca Mountain, but dismisses Nevada's other lawsuits. The Department of Energy selects the southern Nevada Caliente corridor to build a rail line for shipping waste to Yucca Mountain (Carlin is named the alternative). Nevada files suit over the Caliente Rail Line. An NRC Board rules that DOE's Yucca Mountain public internet database (Licensing Support Network) is incomplete. It is uncertain whether DOE will submit its license application to the NRC in December as planned. An NRC Comissioner and other officials say a 2010 opening is unlikely.

2005  DOE announces plans to ship nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain in "dedicated trains," meaning that railroad cars carrying nuclear waste will not share trains with any other cargo. DOE releases emails indicating that documentation of quality assurance data may have been falsified by U.S. Geological Survey staff; however, criminal charges are not filed. The EPA releases a revised two-part draft radiation standard for public comment. DOE shifts the design of the proposed repository to a "clean" facility, unveiling the Transportation, Aging, and Disposal (TAD) canister system.

2006  DOE sets a new target date of 2017 for the opening a the Yucca Mountain repository. Edward F. "Ward" Sproat is confirmed as director of the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management. In a waste management policy shift, the Bush administration launches the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, or GNEP, an initiative to research nuclear waste reprocessing. DOE reopens its study of the so-called Mina rail route to Yucca Mountain.

2007   The Walker River Paiute Tribe withdraws its permission to ship nuclear waste through its reservation, forcing DOE to drop plans for further study of the Mina rail route. DOE releases the design requirements for its TAD canisters. The department releases two draft EIS documents, one on the repository itself and another on the rail corridor. DOE abandons 2017 opening date for Yucca Mountain, estimating that the facility will not be operational until 2020 at the earliest. DOE's Yucca Mountain public internet database, the Licensing Support Network, is ruled complete.

2008   DOE submits its license application to the NRC for review. Nevada officials file a petition urging the NRC to reject the application based on the application's lack of critical information

2009   In 2009, the Secretary of Energy said that a repository at Yucca Mountain was not a workable option, and in 2010, DOE terminated its efforts to license a repository there.

2010   January 2010, the Obama administration named a 15-member panel of experts to chart new paths to manage highly radioactive nuclear waste. The commission , was led by two Washington policy veterans, former Rep. Lee Hamilton and longtime presidential adviser Brent Scowcroft. Known as the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future, the Commission was charged to issues its report in 18 months. Energy Secretary Steven Chu said the commission will have a free hand to examine a "full range of scientific and technical options" on waste storage, reprocessing and disposal, with one exception: the once-favored Yucca Mountain underground repository.

2010   February 2010, NRC judges halt Yucca license hearings. The Atomic Safety and Licensing Board granted the request by the Department of Energy as part of a process for the Obama administration to seek a final withdrawal of the plan to build a Nevada repository for spent nuclear fuel. The Atomic Safety and Licensing Board is a branch of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The judges noted in their order that none of the parties that are taking part in license hearings objected to setting aside the license proceedings; [U.S. DOE Motion to end funding for Yucca Mountain], and more [Related Information]

2010   March 2010, Group calls on Congress to keep Yucca Mountain alive: Days before an Obama administration-tapped panel holds its first meeting on alternatives to Yucca Mountain, a coalition, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, is calling on Congress to reverse the president's proposed zeroing out of the proposed nuclear waste repository project's budget. Read the coalitions letter

2010   May 17, 2010: The state of Nevada files a motion with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, asking it to approve the application of the Department of Energy to pull out of Yucca Mountain.

2010   June 29, 2010: A Nuclear Regulatory Commission legal panel says the federal Department of Energy can't withdraw its application to build a national nuclear waste dump in Nevada [Read the 45 Page Decision]

2010   September 30, 2010: The Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management (OCWRM) died on September 30, 2010; it was 28-years-old. According to a spokesman, the cause of death was “the Administration's decision not to pursue development of a repository at Yucca Mountain.” OCRWM was conceived in 1982 by the United States Senate and United States House of Representatives. Since 1987, the OCRWM divided its time exclusively between Yucca Mountain and Washington, D.C.

2011   January, 2011: Nevada now finds itself in a legal and procedural limbo. It will likely be well into 2011 or beyond before developments in the licensing, legal and political arenas will have been sufficiently sorted out to know whether Yucca Mountain is to go forward in licensing or is to be terminated, as DOE proposes. [Details]

2011   March 2011: WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration would revive the Yucca Mountain program if it loses upcoming legal challenges over the fate of the nuclear waste site, Energy Secretary Steven Chu told Congress. "We will take it one step at a time," Chu said. "We have preserved the records, and some of the key people have been transferred to the nuclear energy division and so we can start this up. "The history of Yucca Mountain is one that has taught us a lesson," Chu said. "In picking future sites you are going to have to start a dialogue with the states and communities and do this in a way where 49 (states) don't gang up on one."

2011   July 2011: Washington state and South Carolina file lawsuit to compel the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to resume its consideration of a nuclear waste repository in Nevada. The action came hours after the Blue Ribbon Commission urged federal officials to generate local support for alternative sites to the federal plans for a Yucca Mountain repository.

2011  July 2011: The Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future submitted its draft report to the Secretary of Energy, as required by the Commission charter. Read/Download the Draft Report [192 Pages 3.9 MB]

2011  July 2011: A federal court has dismissed a lawsuit that sought to keep alive the blueprint for burying nuclear waste in Nevada. A three-judge panel said in a unanimous decision the lawsuit by the states of Washington and South Carolina and others challenging the shutdown of the Yucca project was premature until the Nuclear Regulatory Commission takes final actions that could bring it to an end. [Read Decision]

2011  September 2011: The Nuclear Regulatory Commission allows the Obama administration to continue plans to close the controversial Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump in Nevada. The commission split, 2-2, on whether to uphold or reject a decision by an independent nuclear licensing board. The board voted last year to block the Energy Department's from withdrawing its application for Yucca Mountain.

2012   In January 2012, the Blue Ribbon Commission recommended that Congress create and fund a new organization dedicated solely to managing spent nuclear fuel. The commission also recommended development of a consent-based approach to locating or establishing (or "siting") future spent nuclear fuel management facilities, among other things.

2012  April 2012: House lawmakers supporting the Yucca Mountain repository plan to advance a bill that would set aside $35 million to revive the controversial nuclear waste site. The Republican-led action renews the annual Capitol Hill tug of war over Yucca Mountain that in recent years has tilted in favor of Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the project's leading opponent in Congress. Since President Barack Obama terminated the program in 2009, frustrated Yucca Mountain supporters have inserted funding for it into the annual Department of Energy spending bill only to have the Senate refuse to go along.

2012 April 2012: The U.S. Senate Energy and Water Appropriations Committee [Senators Murkowski and Landrieu, working with Senators Feinstein, Alexander and Bingaman] produced a bill that takes the first step to address the nation's nuclear waste problem. The 56-page bill would put in place some of the recommendations of the expert commission President Barack Obama formed in January 2010 after he decided to terminate the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada as a potential nuclear waste repository. Chief among them, the bill would establish a more cooperative approach for the government to recruit states and communities to host temporary nuclear waste storage sites and a permanent repository.

2012 October 2012: Groups that have sued to force the Obama administration to restart the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste project ask federal judges to finalize a decision.

2012 November 2012: The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee holds hearing to review legislation [S. 3469, The Nuclear Waste Administration Act of 2012] that may serve as the framework for the storage and later permanent disposal of the nation's civilian and defense nuclear waste.

2013   In January 2013, DOE issued a strategy for managing spent nuclear fuel in response to the Blue Ribbon Commission's recommendations. The strategy calls for the federal government to begin accepting spent nuclear fuel for management at a pilot interim storage facility by 2021 and at a larger consolidated interim storage facility by 2025, among other things.

2013   May 2013: A fee that electric customers have been paying for 31 years to fund a federal nuclear waste repository has ended. The Energy Department will stop charging the fee by court order; the amount is only a small percentage of most customers' bills, but it adds up to $750 million a year. The fund now holds $37 billion.

2013   On August 2013: the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit issued a decision ordering Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to restart the Yucca Mountain licensing proceeding using appropriated funds; even though the court acknowledged that those funds were insufficient to complete the proceeding. The ruling was a split decision, with two members of the three-judge panel voting to grant mandamus and one judge in opposition (i.e., Chief Judge Garland). Garland, in a strongly-worded dissent, noted that the NRC was being ordered to do a "useless thing" by forcing it to restart a proceeding everyone agreed could not be finished without new congressional appropriations.

2013   On November 18, 2013, NRC ordered the licensing proceeding restarted and directed its staff to complete work on the Safety Evaluation Report (SER) that contains the staff's review of the DOE license application and its compliance with NRC licensing regulations. NRC also requested that DOE prepare a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) to address the impacts of the proposed repository on groundwater. DOE subsequently advised NRC that it would not prepare the requested SEIS and, instead, promised to provide NRC with an updated report on groundwater issues.

2014   July 21, 2014: Nuclear Regulatory Commission issues final rule titled “Continued Storage of Spent Nuclear Fuel Rule.” The rule adopts findings from a supporting generic environmental impact statement (GEIS) and concludes that spent nuclear fuel can be safely managed in dry casks during short-term (up to 60 years), long-term (100 years after the initial 60 years), and indefinite timeframes.

2014   October 2014, The Nuclear Regulatory Commission NRC releases a long-delayed report on the suitability of Yucca Mountain as a disposal spot for nuclear waste, finding that the design met the commission's requirements. The report is titled "Safety Evaluation Report Related to Disposal of High-Level Radioactive Wastes in a Geologic Repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada Volume 3: Repository Safety After Permanent Closure"

2015   January 2015, The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) staff publishes volumes two and five of its safety evaluation report on the geologic high-level nuclear waste repository proposed for Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Publication of these volumes completes the technical safety review of the Department of Energy's Yucca Mountain application. The safety evaluation report includes the staff's recommendation that the Commission should not authorize construction of the repository because DOE has not met certain land and water rights requirements identified in Volume 4, published in December, and a supplement to DOE's environmental impact statement has not yet been completed. (Note: as of February 2015, and using it's own funds the NRC agreed to complete the required supplement to DOE's environmental impact statement — 2 Page PDF) [Web Source]. Of note, in August 2015 the NRC issued the Supplement to the U.S. Department of Energy's Environmental Impact Statement NUREG-2184. For related information on this topic, see the State of Nevada's comments [and comments] by Eureka County on the DOE/NRC EIS document.

2016   January 2016: In late 2015 the U.S. Department of Energy (US DOE) announced that it was implementing a consent-based siting process to establish an integrated waste management system to transport, store, and dispose of commercial spent nuclear fuel and high level defense radioactive waste. This action followed the recommendations of President Obama's Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future (BRC). The BRC found that a phased, adaptive, consent-based siting process for spent fuel and high level waste was the best approach to gain the public trust and confidence needed to site nuclear waste facilities.

As way of background, the selection of Yucca Mountain as the nation's only site for the disposal of spent fuel and high level waste was a political decision; and that decision was not based on the site's scientific merit. Examples of key unresolved technical issues at Yucca include an active geologic environment; oxidizing/corrosive subsurface environment; high seismic/earthquake activity; relatively young volcanic activity; and rapid water movement through the mountain. So it's no surprise that after extensive study it became increasingly apparent that Yucca Mountain failed to possess key waste isolation characteristics required for long-term waste disposal.

Nevertheless, in 2008 US DOE submitted a license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to build Yucca Mountain. The State of Nevada responded by filing 229 technical challenges.

Then, in 2009 the Secretary of Energy said that a repository at Yucca Mountain was not a workable option, and in 2010, US DOE terminated its efforts to license a repository at Yucca. US DOE subsequently announced it was withdrawing the license application submitted to the NRC, although the DC Court of Appeals directed the NRC to continue with the licensing process, despite an unwilling applicant.

Today the Yucca Mountain site has been abandoned and nothing exists but a boarded up exploratory tunnel. There are no waste disposal tunnels, receiving and handling facilities, and the waste containers and transportation casks have yet to be developed. Moreover, there is no railroad to the site, and the cost to build a railroad through Nevada could exceed $3 billion. Today, the only thing that actually exists at Yucca Mountain is a single 5 mile exploratory tunnel.

Readers Note: For more about the current status of the Yucca Mountain repository program see our FAQ page.

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