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No More Yucca Mountain

Expert panel urges U.S. to begin again the search for a radioactive waste site

by Jeff Johnson
February 13, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 7

Credit: Dept. of Energy
Since 1978, the Department of Energy has studied Yucca Mountain’s geology and bored more than five miles of exploratory tunnels.
Tunnels below Yucca Mountain.
Credit: Dept. of Energy
Since 1978, the Department of Energy has studied Yucca Mountain’s geology and bored more than five miles of exploratory tunnels.

The U.S. needs a fresh start in the complex, national process to find a location to dispose of high-level radioactive waste. That’s the conclusion of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future in its report released in late January.

The review by the 15-member panel of experts took two years to complete and involved more than two dozen public meetings and site visits throughout the U.S. and other nations. In the end, the report urges using an entirely new process and creating a new agency to lead the search for a publicly acceptable—and scientifically suitable—place to store radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel. These waste products come from nuclear power plants and former U.S. weapon manufacturing sites.

Among its recommendations, the commission says the waste siting program should no longer be led by the Department of Energy or the federal government, which “has not inspired confidence or trust” in the program. Instead, the commission says, a “single-purpose, federal corporation” is needed, and it should have complete authority over the almost $25 billion in funds for the repository that has been raised through a tax on electricity. The tax contributes about $750 million per year to the program.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu created the blue-ribbon commission two years ago, after President Barack Obama decided not to seek a construction permit for the Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada, located 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas. Obama announced his decision on Yucca Mountain while campaigning in Nevada during the 2008 presidential race, after loud objections to the repository’s location from Nevada residents, the state, and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.).

Chu specifically ordered the panel of physicists and experts on energy and radioactive waste not to consider the suitability of Yucca Mountain or other potential sites for a geological repository. Instead, he tasked the panel to find a sound waste management scheme to resolve the long-running impasse over the repository’s location.

Despite the expenditure of some $12 billion in funds generated by taxpayers and electricity ratepayers and 30-plus years of study by government scientists, the Yucca Mountain geological repository has been stuck with long delays primarily because of frequent challenges from the Nevada state government.

Under the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act, the repository was supposed to be operating by 1998. That act called for the creation of two waste repositories, one in the eastern U.S. and a second in the West. It also laid out a process to examine and select a final waste site from a list of several candidates. In 1987, however, Congress amended that law, modifying it in such a way that only Yucca Mountain could qualify as a geological waste repository. The law was nicknamed the “Screw Nevada bill,” the commission’s report notes.

Obama’s decision to block Yucca Mountain and the limits Chu placed on the scope of the commission’s investigation angered many in Congress and the nuclear energy industry that still support Yucca Mountain. They voiced their displeasure at congressional hearings earlier this month.

Among critics is Rep. John M. Shimkus (R-Ill.), chairman of the House Energy & Commerce Subcommittee on Environment & the Economy, who wants Yucca Mountain to be the final resting place for U.S. radioactive waste. He underscored this view during a Feb. 1 subcommittee hearing on the commission’s report. Shimkus was joined by subcommittee Republicans and a few Democrats from states that hold waste and want to see it gone.

For the decision to drop Yucca Mountain, Shimkus blamed the President, Reid, and Gregory B. Jaczko, the chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, who removed the repository’s license examination from the NRC docket and is a former assistant to Reid. NRC’s decision is currently tied up in court.

By law, Yucca Mountain is to be developed as a repository, Shimkus stressed. In response, Lee H. Hamilton, commission cochair and a former Democratic U.S. representative from Indiana, said Shimkus was correct. “The only problem is we can’t enforce the law,” he continued. “You can sit around and hope that it’s all going to be resolved if the next election breaks right; that’s been exactly the hope for 40 years.”

As Shimkus and other representatives continued their push for the Nevada site during the hearing, an exasperated Hamilton shook his head and criticized Congress for continuing to insist on “Yucca, Yucca, Yucca.” Meanwhile, he said, the nation faces a mountain of nuclear waste building up at some 75 locations around the country.

The report notes that 65,000 metric tons of commercial radioactive waste rests near some 104 operating reactors and another 10 closed ones. At four major former weapons sites, a witches’ brew of liquid and solid high-level radioactive waste remains, waiting to be treated and shipped somewhere.

Hamilton and commission cochair Gen. Brent Scowcroft said the 180-page report reveals the need to create a “consent-based approach” to site future permanent waste repositories as well as at least one centralized interim storage facility. They pointedly said the Yucca Mountain approach was a “top-down, federally mandated solution,” forced over the objections of a state or community, and will not work.

Instead, the commission wants a system of incentives and a complicated negotiation process to encourage local and state agreement for a waste site. Members of Congress were skeptical that a community would volunteer, and Hamilton responded that incentives, such as jobs and payments, would have to be part of the negotiating process.

But Shimkus noted that rural counties around the proposed Nevada site did support the repository’s location. The state, however, did not, the cochairs noted, nor did residents of Nevada’s major cities.

Hamilton and Scowcroft were quizzed about the possibility of reprocessing spent fuel as an option. The commission’s members considered it, they said, but recommend more research because no clear technology path exists today. And no matter what, high-level waste will remain and a geological repository is still needed, they added.

The commission’s plan will require legislation and time. Two years have already elapsed without action while the commission investigated the issue and wrote its report. Hamilton urged speedy action, noting more years will slide by as Congress writes, debates, and passes a bill.

Meanwhile, the commission’s cochairs recommended that Chu designate a senior official to coordinate DOE efforts that could be accomplished while Congress works on legislation. Chu has been quiet, however, and in a statement said only that he would prepare within six months a new strategy for addressing high-level radioactive waste.

Among eight key report recommendations, the commission suggests first focusing on selecting at least one centralized interim storage facility. The goal is to move waste away from current reactor and weapon sites and particularly from the 10 sites that are closed yet house spent fuel. An interim site would require additional waste handling and more trains and trucks, however, leading the commission to call transportation a “crucial link” in the scheme. The report notes that the public fears movement of radioactive material, hence shipping must not become an “afterthought.”

Hamilton acknowledged that a process to select new sites could take at least 10 years for an interim storage site and 20 or more years for a permanent geological repository.

Along with practical reasons to address radioactive waste, the report singles out ethical drivers to hurry the siting process. “This generation has a fundamental, ethical obligation to avoid burdening future generations with the entire task of finding a safe, permanent solution for managing hazardous nuclear materials they had no part in creating,” the commission writes.

Overall, the report strongly endorses nuclear energy and notes that many countries are considering expanding their nuclear power programs. The commission sees a potential role for the U.S. as an international leader but notes that the nation should lead by example, which is difficult if its own waste programs are in disarray.


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