US Energy Secretary shuts down Yucca Mountain project decisively at Senate Committee hearing

Publish date: March 5, 2009

Written by: Charles Digges

Energy Secretary Steven Chu Thursday drove the final nail into the coffin of the proposed $96 billion Yucca Mountain storage facility for highly radioactive waste, brushing aside critisism in a tête-à-tête with Republican lawmakers, telling them that “we can do a better job.”

Chu also told lawmakers that the United States would not consider reversing a 30-year-old policy against reprocessing spent nuclear fuel to combat mounting drums of spent nuclear fuel.

Chu’s remarks come as a relief to many environmentalists, as early analysis of waste storage options available after President Barack Obama scrubbed Yucca from his budget last week indicated he might lean in the direction of the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP).

The GNEP is a 21-nation consortium led by Russian and the United States that envisions reprocessing to minimise nuclear waste, while also shipping highly radioactive waste to a handful of nations who would agree to store it – a strategy Bellona strongly opposes.

“I’m glad that United States under Obama is not considering lifting the ban on reprocessing, and will continue to work find a safe geologic spent nuclear fuel repository within the country,” said Nils Bøhmer, Bellona’s nuclear physicist.”

Waste to remain at plants awaiting better option

Instead, Chu, a Nobel Prize-wining physicist, said the Obama administration believes the United States’ nearly 60,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel should remain at nuclear power plants while a new, comprehensive plan for waste disposal is developed, according to a C-SPAN broadcast of the hearing.

The spent fuel, growing at the rate of 2,000 tons a year, now is being held in pools and above-ground concrete containers at reactor sites.

"The nation has already accumulated 60,000 metric tons of spent nuclear waste, and the material is going to have to be isolated from the environment for hundreds and thousands of years," Edwin Lyman, senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, told the Christian Science Monitor.

"There’s no way to make the waste disappear. No matter what the French say, there’s no alternative to having a mined geological repository," he says. The challenge is to find one that is technically and politically acceptable.

A touchy McCain challenges Chu – unsuccessfully

Chu’s remarks at the Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on support for scientific research set off a fractious exchanges with Senator John McCain, the Republican from Arizona who lost  the presidency to Obama last year, and underscored that the United States was now on a extraordinarily new tack to deal with its nuclear waste.

McCain’s current defence of Yucca is a direct contradiction of promises he made on the campaign trail in Nevada, where he adopted an anti-Yucca stance in stump speeches.

"What’s wrong with Yucca Mountain, Mr. Chu," McCain asked in remarks broadcast from the hearing.  

"I think we can do a better job," said Chu.

McCain asked whether it was true that Obama — as well as Chu — view Yucca Mountain as no longer an option.

"That’s true," replied Chu.

"Now we’re going to have spent fuel sitting around in pools all over America," McCain retorted, and characterised the Obama position on nuclear waste — and its decision to uphold the rejection of reprocessing spent nuclear fuel — as a reflection of the administration’s opposition to nuclear energy.

Chu said there were short-term answers other than Yucca, while a long-term solution to dealing with nuclear waste is developed.

"The interim storage of waste (at reactors), the solidification of waste, is something we can do today. The (Nuclear Regulatory Commission) has said we can do it safely," said Chu.

No place for waste
McCain and Alaska’s Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski said the decision to dump the Yucca Mountain project posed a threat to expanding nuclear energy in America because the government can no longer give the assurance of waste disposal.

The US government is obligated by law to accept the used reactor fuel from 104 commercial power reactors, but as yet it has no place to put it.

But most Energy Department data as early as 2000 indicated that if Yucca Mountain were to have met its hoped for deadline of 2020, space in the facility had long ago been accounted for, and another Yucca Mountain would have to have been built immediately.

Yucca Mountain, a ridge of volcanic rock 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, has for 27 years been the focus of government plants to build a subterranean repository for high level radioactive waste. Former President George Bush last year submitted construction and licensing application to the NRC.

Siting of Yucca flawed

But the choice of the site as viewed by more contemporary standards, is seen as dramatically flawed. The approach pioneered by Sweden is to take a list of communities who volunteer to host a repository. The list is whittled down to one – but the crucial point is that the community can withdraw from the project at any stage.

But Yucca Mountain was not selected by any scientific or popular process of elimination; it was selected from a list in 1987 by Congress, which declared it dry and remote enough.

Scientific concerns have since emerged, including the realization that water flows through Yucca Mountain much faster than initially believed. That raises the prospect that the nuclear waste would leach over time, polluting the water table. The scientific merit of the site has not been established by independent research and environmental impact studies.

“I would urge the administration to look to Sweden to develop a democratic and transparent process to find a suitable location for the final repository,” said Bellona’s Bøhmer.

As yet, there are no deep geologic repositories for radioactive waste anywhere in the world, but Sweden is getting close to deciding on building one in the towns of Forsmark or Oskarshamn.

Obama’s first budget announced a week ago proposes scrapping all spending on Yucca Mountain except for what is needed to answer questions from the NRC on the license application "while the administration devises a new strategy toward nuclear waste disposal" – which balances out to $288 million for the remainder of the fiscal year.

There appear to be no immediate plans by the Energy Department to withdraw the Yucca Mountain license application that Bush put before the NRC because doing so could trigger lawsuits from the nuclear industry. The NRC has up to four years to hold hearings on the application.

Eliot Brenner, an NRC spokesman, said the hearings would proceed.

“What happens once we say yes or no is out of our hands,” Brenner said.

The Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry’s lobby, has called for a blue ribbon panel to develop a ‘plan B’  to Yucca Mountain in the next 1-2 years.