Revelations by Nevada state nuke officials show Yucca mountain sank long before Obama killed its budget

wikimedia commons

Publish date: August 12, 2009

Written by: Charles Digges

When US president Barack Obama cut funding for the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste suppository to a mere trickle earlier this year when he revealed his first budget, the nuclear industry came out in force to defend the facility and filed lawsuits against the US government for failing in its obligation to provide safe storage for spent nuclear fuel from the country’s 104 nuclear power plants.

Some pro-nuclear pundits called Obama a puppet of the anti-nuclear lobby – at the same time his energy secretary Stephen Chu was giving open interviews saying Obama considers nuclear power is essential to cutting US CO2 emissions.

But evidence recently revealed by officials in Nevada, where Yucca Mountain is $96 billion down the road in construction, shows that the US Energy Department withheld data in a licensing request that would have proved that Yucca would have failed – without any help from politicians. The withholding of this data – which would have disqualified Yucca – dates  back to at least 2004, Nevada officials said.

According Bruce Breslow, executive director of the state-run Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects, the governmental body discovered two documents in a computerized database not included in a licensing application sent to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) that show how unsafe buried nuclear waste would be at Yucca Mountain, 

In May and July of this year, the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects its concerns to the NRC about the repository’s operation without titanium drip shields to protect buried containers of high-level nuclear waste and spent fuel from the nation’s reactors, Breslow said.

This concern was connected with studies of Yucca undertaken in the 1990s by the Energy Department and state studies, which both showed that water ran through Yucca’s layers of volcanic ash much faster than scientists had initially calculated.

It was determined at that time that special metal was needed for the containers gathering water run off, as well as sheets of titanium that would be installed after the repository closed to prevent water from corroding the containers and releasing radiation to the environment.

Among the literally millions of pages of Energy Department documents posted on a shared computer data bank, two indicated that the containers would fail much sooner than the 10,000 years they must function for to qualify as a repository, thus disqualifying Yucca as a potential storage site.

Breslow said these two damning documents were left out of the application. “We don’t think this is a safe scenario," he told the Las Vegas Sun in an earlier interview. "This was left out of the license application."

In a one-paragraph response to the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects’ inquiries of May and July, the NRC responded on July 23rd saying that its staff review “will include careful consideration of the items you mention.”

That wasn’t the answer the state was seeking, Breslow said. "It doesn’t mean that the NRC staff will require the DOE to run the models without drip shields in it and provide that information for a license application," he said.

"It certainly wasn’t meant to be a brush-off of the state’s concerns," said David McIntyre, an NRC spokesman.

President Obama came to office on series of popular campaign promises that he set his sites on within days of taking office January 20th, and one of the first was slashing Yucca Mountain’s budget to a mere trickle to keep current operations underway – a mere $288 million for the remainder of the current fiscal year.

In a rage, the US nuclear industry cited that when the Yucca project was ram-rodded through congress in 1982, the government made a pledge to dispose of the country’s nuclear waste. Obama’s dismantlement of that promise – which implies further on site storage of nuclear waste – was  breach of promise, they said.


Nuclear utilities across the country began to speak of lawsuits.

Obama appointed US Energy Secretary Steven Chu as point man on dealing with the aftermath of the decision, and Chu had been before several congressional committees prior to he discover of the missing application documents to explain the administration’s motives. His calm refrain throughout these hearings, when questioned about the decision to severly hobble Yucca has been “we can do a better job.”

Indeed, Chu has poured some $6 billion into researching the downcycling of nuclear waste, wrote nuclear blogger Karl Burkart. Work at the Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory is focussing on picking apart the molecules that make spent uranium so dangerous.

“So with the big cash incentives now available to innovators in nuclear fuel and nuclear waste, we may soon (and I mean 15-20 years) have a method for reusing and ultimately neutralizing the 77,000 tons of toxic radioactive waste contained in dozens of sites around the country,”  wrote Burkhart in his blog.

No funding at all for Yucca in 2011

Last month Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the Nevada Democrat who spearheaded the movement against Yucca, said that he had negotiated an agreement with President Obama’s administration and the Energy Department to stop all funding in the Fiscal Year 2011 budget for proceeding with the NRC license application review. The commission is now chaired by former Reid staffer Greg Jaczko.

The NRC has also signalled it could delay the final version of the Safety Evaluation Review, the key to determining whether Yucca is considered safe enough for a license, based on funds provided by Congress.

Worst case scenario
By failing to include the worst-case scenario inside Yucca without drip shields, the state has a major argument against further licensing proceedings, Breslow said.

The state found documents dating back to 2004 asking the Energy Department for a review of the drip-shield scenario, Breslow said. The results contained in the department’s own documents would have disqualified the site before the license application was submitted.

The license application proposes to install such drip shields after the repository is closed, both too full of nuclear waste and too hot for human workers to install them, Breslow said. To install 11,000 drip shields inside the repository, the Energy Department plans to use robots.

The Energy Department did not respond for requests for comment. At present, the Energy Department has chosen not to withdraw Yucca Mountain’s operating licence to the NRC.