Fuel rods from nuclear power plants release no greenhouse gases when they generate electricity. That's why nuclear power is the largest generator of carbon-free electricity in the U.S. But when they're no longer useful in power plants, the fuel rods require secure, permanent disposal.
All of the used fuel ever produced by the commercial nuclear industry since the late 1950s would cover a football field to a depth of less than 10 yards. Outside of its robust storage containers, it is highly radioactive.
Today, the used fuel is stored aboveground near the plants where it came from. But scientists worldwide have agreed that the safest, permanent disposal solution is to entomb the fuel rods deep underground.
In the early 1980s, the U.S. government green-lighted an initiative to find a safe, secure way to dispose of the nation’s growing nuclear waste.
A Bechtel-led team studied Yucca Mountain as the site for the United States' national repository for used fuel rods and solidified high-level radioactive waste from nuclear defense activities.
Located at the edge of the Nevada National Security Site (formerly the Nevada Test Site)—part of a nuclear testing ground established by U.S. President Harry Truman—Yucca Mountain is far from any population centers, has a very dry climate, and is protected by an Air Force range on three sides. It’s about a hundred miles (160 kilometers) northwest of Las Vegas. Key to Yucca Mountain’s suitability as a repository are its geological characteristics.
Hundreds of world-class engineers, geologists, seismologists, volcanologists, chemists, and other specialists studied candidate sites across the country and converged on Yucca Mountain. Starting in 2001, Bechtel and Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) teamed up to conduct even more extensive studies, computer modeling, and sophisticated analytic surveys exploring the site’s potential as a repository.
The Bechtel SAIC team collected and analyzed data from some 8 miles (13 kilometers) of test tunnels and 450 boreholes drilled deep into the mountain to study the rock, water movement, and susceptibility to earthquakes. The team also designed the storage tunnels and safety systems for the planned repository as well as the material handling buildings that would receive the spent fuel shipments and package the fuel rods for burial.
The analyses and engineering formed the basis of the historic license application submitted by the U.S. Department of Energy to the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 2008.
In a 150-foot- (46-meter-) long, full-scale repository simulation, technicians from Bechtel SAIC filled containers with electrical heaters to determine how the mountain would react to the heat of nuclear waste. And some 6,000 measuring instruments helped scientists understand how water moves through the rock in response to that heat. Such a test was unprecedented on that scale and level of detail.
Outstanding safety four years running
DOE bestowed on Bechtel SAIC its "Legacy of Stars" award, honoring contractors that have attained Star of Excellence status four consecutive years.
Today, Bechtel has teamed with Deep Isolation, a company that is studying the use of deep, horizontal boreholes for safe, disposal of used nuclear fuel.