With no panel to study alternative US nuke waste sites, could Yucca Mountain’s bones be creaking back to life?

The Yucca Mountain site.

Publish date: January 18, 2010

Written by: Charles Digges

NEW YORK – A year since US President Barack Obama effectively killed the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository – and his 2011 budget is expected to barely keep the lights on as the Energy Department clears out the offices – the administration and the energy department have so far failed to launch the blue-ribbon panel promised some nine months ago to study alternative nuclear waste proposals.

Meanwhile, 60,000 metric tons of US civilian and military waste continue to pile up, and high-level nuclear observers from the non-governmental sector are getting a little nervous. The build up of waste may also land the US government in hot water with the industry as Yucca Mountain has, for the past 20 years, been the Congressionally mandated end of the road for US spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste.

US Energy Secretary Steven Chu has said, with little challenge, that waste generated by America’s 104 nuclear power plants can be stored safely on-site for the next 100 years. He also stands behind the plan to shut down Yucca for good, maintaining a mere $25 million for the 2011 budget to close out the agency’s Yucca Mountain office, much of which would go toward the retention of “critical knowledge and data.”

Even this figure has led to a bit of a tussle between the Energy Department and the White House, which wants to zero out all funding for Yucca in the coming year’s federal budget, White House Budget Director Peter Orszag said in a statement to Bellona Web this week.

But very few steps have been taken since Chu told a Congressional panel last March that he plans to appoint a panel to examine further sites for the permanent internment of US nuclear waste, telling them famously that, as far as Yucca went, America “could do better.”

Absence of panel ‘disconcerting’

“I find it quite disconcerting that a commission with a proper broad charter to look at this problem hasn’t been created,” said Arjun Makhijani, president of Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER), a nonprofit opposed to nuclear power.

“I think the bigger danger is that inaction will simply lead us back to Yucca Mountain,” Makhijani said in an email interview, adding, “Leaving the problem to fester is not good.”

The swift movements of the Obama Administration last year to give Yucca a bare minimum of operating costs in the White House’s green-heavy budget certainly left no one thinking that the president or the energy secretary were going to put nuclear waste storage on a back burner.

Chu quickly followed up, telling Congress at the March hearing that the panel would be formed “ideally” within a month and would craft recommendations by the end of 2009. But these recommendations never came.

On Friday, Chu responded to questions about the commission by saying the Energy Department is “working as hard and fast as we can on that.”

Reid says no chance for Yucca resurrection- but US law in contradiction

The lawmaker who has led opposition to the Yucca project, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a nevada Democrat, has said this week he is confident that the administration’s delay won’t translate into a revival of the Nevada project.

“The administration has been very clear that Yucca will never be built,” Reid spokeswoman Regan Lachapelle told reporters. “Senator Reid understands that it takes time to assemble the highly qualified people needed to determine how best to dispose of the nation’s nuclear waste.”

But despite agreements between Reid and the administration, Yucca Mountain remains – by law – the disposal site for US nuclear waste. The Energy Department repository license has not been withdrawn, nor has the department moved to do so, according to representatives of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), who told Bellona Web they still have the application materials in hand.

Moreover, some within the NRC have suggested that disagreement over whether the blue-ribbon panel should consider Yucca Mountain as a potential waste management solution is one reason the administration has taken so long to get the commission going.

Some panel candidates not ready to scrap Yucca- but prognosis near zero

Qualified candidates under consideration for Chu’s blue ribbon panel, several NRC an Energy Department sources have said over the past week, do not agree Yucca should be taken off the table.

“I think it is too early to predict what the long-term prospects for Yucca Mountain will be, but the project certainly appears to be near death right now,” said Ed Lyman, a senior scientist for the nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists.

“Ultimately, the US will have to restart the siting process for a nuclear waste repository, and whether Yucca Mountain will be a viable candidate again remains to be seen, given its technical and political challenges.”

Lyman said the Yucca project suspension “has created a vacuum in the nation’s nuclear waste disposal policy that is allowing a lot of silly ideas (…) to flourish.” Among those ideas, he said, is a push for reprocessing spent fuel – a policy not considered since former President Jimmy Carter stopped nuclear reprocessing in the United States in the 1970s.

More waste on the way

Meanwhile, Lyman said, new nuclear power plants are being proposed that will create even more waste.

“It will be a risky proposition if the US goes forward with the construction of a large number of new nuclear plants if there is no credible plan to safely dispose of the waste they will generate, and development of such a plan will take time and effort,” Lyman said.

On the other hand, Derrick Freeman, senior director of legislative programmes at the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), an industry lobby, maintained in an email interview that the delay in getting the commission launched should not affect the power industry’s plans for more plants, since the NRC has ruled that plants’ waste may be stored on-site for at least 100 years.

But while the federal efforts lag, the industry – and therefore its customers –  is still paying fees on electricity generated by nuclear plants into a waste fund that currently has no objective. The industry wants that to end.

Financial liabilities accrue

Another financial ramification of delay is the increasing federal financial liability.

Under the Energy Department’s contract with utilities, the government was supposed to have started taking spent fuel from power plants by 1998. Utilities have so far recovered more than $7 billion for the partial breach of contract from Treasury’s general judgment fund, Greenwire reported.

A key question remains: Would a federal defunding of the Yucca Mountain project without providing an alternative mean the government has breached the utility contract? NEI is examining the matter and has not ruled out taking legal action, said the agency.