Southern Nevada Chapter

of the

CCNY Alumni Association

CCNY Alumni of Southern Nevada Tour Yucca Mountain


The Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management (OCRWM) is the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DoE) project office to develop and manage a repository for disposing of spent nuclear fuel. The DoE began studying the “future” Yucca Mountain Repository in 1978 to determine whether it would be suitable for the nation's first long-term geologic repository for spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste.

These materials are presently stored at over 100 sites around the nation. They are a residue from nuclear power generation and national defense programs. Not withstanding recent revelations about falsified data, the DoE is currently in the process of preparing an application to obtain a Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) license to proceed with construction of the repository.

The Tour

Our Southern Nevada Chapter of the CCNY Alumni Association arranged our March 9th, 2005 tour of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository site. It was supervised by the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE), which also provided the tour guide, the bus, a Marie Calendar’s lunch and the itinerary. Tourists included alumni, friends and family members. We met our bus at the Meadows Mall parking lot.

The first stop was the Yucca Mountain Project’s Las Vegas office, just across the street from Meadows Mall. On entering the facility, we were all handed a paper bound book published by the League of Women Voters entitled “The Nuclear Waste Primer.” Although the book was published in 1993, it still provides a good reference resource and overview of the real world problems encountered in disposing of radioactive waste.

We were issued security badges, had our morning coffee (or other beverage) and toured the Yucca Mountain Project’s Las Vegas office and mini-museum, with its exhibits of Yucca Mountain geology, hydrology and history. Those of us who also ordered the continental breakfast found it ready and waiting to take out. Using a multimedia display and live equipment samples, a DoE guide instructed us on safety procedures and equipment needed for our tour inside the repository tunnel.

We then boarded the tour bus. We took US 95 north from Las Vegas, NV though very rugged desert country, past the desert communities of Mercury and the Amargosa Valley, to NV 373, then to the federally protected high desert area of the Nevada Test Site. This test site is located in Nye County, Nevada, approximately 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas. We then turned north to the site.

Our DoE guide was David Stahl. David is a CCNY alumnus who works for the DoE. He volunteered to guide our group on his own time. He gave us a lot of interesting information on the ride up. At the entrance to the Nevada Test Site (portal to Yucca Mountain), the security officer who boarded our bus to check our badges also attended CCNY!  Sorry we didn’t get his name. It seems you get to meet alumni in the most unexpected places!

At the South Portal, we were herded into a worker facility and given hard hats. We checked out various posters and displays. The facility had long lunch tables in the large front room, and showers and locker facilities in a rear section. Bruce Reinert (who is, by the way, another CCNY alumnus) lectured on the history of the Yucca Mountain project and its importance to our future; the engineered and natural barriers; and how scientific studies and computer models showed the repository to be safe. We were then issued bright yellow hard hats and reminded of safety issues before leaving for the repository.

We proceeded to the North Portal where we were awed by the massive tunnel-boring machine that sat a few hundred feet outside the completed tunnel entrance. Rails could be seen going into the tunnel. Rail cars are used to transport workers deep into the tunnel, and will be used in the future to transport low-level nuclear waste canisters. We walked along the side of the tracks. On the other side of the tracks, high overhead, we could see the conveyer belts that were used by the tunnel-boring machine to bring rocks and debris from the dig point back to the entrance during the boring process. We followed the tracks a short distance into the North Portal until we came to a spur tunnel. We entered the spur and were given a briefing about the devices there and the experiments that were done to get parameters for the computer models. This was one of several spurs that were dug to conduct tests, but this one is now used as sort of a museum to present engineering and historical information to visitors. Here we could see an analog of the expected tunnel environment where spent fuel containers would be stored. Instead of expensive circular casement supports, the tunnel walls were secured by huge pins, which were driven into the rocks.

Next, we went back to the main tunnel, and continued deeper via a catwalk that paralleled the tracks. On the way, we were shown the ventilation system that circulates fresh air into the tunnel. As we arrived at another tunnel spur, we could see a rail car approaching on its way to the exit. At the spur, we were shown how the spur was sealed and heaters were used to simulate the high temperature environment that would result from the storage of low-level radionuclide canisters. We participated in a question and answer session with a DoE geologist. Some of us were concerned about canister mineral water erosion in an otherwise stable tunnel environment for spent nuclear fuel. Unfortunately, there was little discussion of the radioactive material transportation problems, i.e., getting the waste safely to the repository from all parts of the United States. The perspective of the DoE’s Yucca Mountain Project Office seemed to be that the transportation issues were a different set of problems that were not directly related to repository construction. So ended the informational part of our tour. We proceeded back to the entrance where we boarded vans back to the worker facility for lunch.

Back at the worker facility, our Marie Calendar’s box lunches were dispensed. After lunch, we bought Yucca Mountain souvenirs that were displayed on tables. Then it was off to the next leg of our tour.

To complete our Yucca Mountain tour, we took a short, dusty, scenic and exciting trip along a bumpy road to the peak of Yucca Mountain. Although it was hazy, there was a majestic view at the top. Fred Venzie, another CCNY alumnus working for the DoE, pointed out all the interesting vistas. We could see Mt Whitney, 103 miles to the northwest; Death Valley, 35 miles to the southwest; and the Amargosa Valley, 20 miles to the south.

We then returned to our tour-bus for the return trip to the Meadows Mall in Las Vegas. Some of us snoozed, some of us schmoozed, some read, some viewed the scenary. This was a very informative and enjoyable trip.

-Sheldon Rabin

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