One worst-case scenario some people fear with the planned nuclear-waste repository at Yucca Mountain is “autocatalytic criticality,” the possibility that some of the waste stored in the mountain might get jostled about and come into close enough contact with other waste to set off a spontaneous nuclear explosion. But, for the time being, an even more pressing question is whether the project will implode before the first shipment of nuclear waste ever arrives, as Judith Lews reports at High Country News. After all, Barack Obama came out against storing waste at Yucca Mountain while campaigning in Nevada last year. Harry Reid, meanwhile, has taken it upon himself to slash Yucca’s construction budget whenever possible, proudly announcing last week that he'd slashed its fiscal year 2009 appropriation by more than $100 million. That’s enough to make the current level of funding—$288 million for the year—the lowest in the project’s two-decade history. And Reid promises that more cuts will be coming next year.

In a strange way, it would only be fitting if political considerations spelled the end of the Yucca Mountain repository, seeing as how politics played such a central role in the original selection of the site. Back in the 1980s, when the Energy Department was first studying the problem, officials came up with nine potential sites for the long-term storage of nuclear waste, a list that was eventually narrowed down to three: Yucca Mountain, the Hanford site in Washington, and some underground salt deposits in West Texas. Then, with a 1987 law that quickly became known as the “Screw Nevada Act,” Congress ordered the Department of Energy to stop studying the other two sites and to focus solely on Yucca Mountain. (This transpired, in part, because Nevada's congressional delegation wasn't terribly powerful at the time.) Opposition to Yucca has been a cornerstone of Nevada politics ever since.

Yucca Mountain, as it turns out, is hardly the perfect site for storing nuclear waste. It gets very little rain, which is an advantage, but it’s also in a geologically active region prone to earthquakes and, possibly, volcanic activity. And, despite the area's dryness, conditions inside the mountain promote the oxidation—i.e. rusting—of metal containment vessels. But if not Yucca Mountain, where? The current ad hoc system of storing spent fuel at nuclear power plants—where the waste sits close to population centers and is relatively unsecured—is surely the worst of all possibilities. If Obama took a hard look at not just the problems with storing waste in Yucca Mountain, but also the problems with the alternatives, he might decide that his campaign position on Yucca is one promise worth going back on.

--Rob Inglis