U.S. Forging Ahead With Yucca Mountain Project

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, July 14, 2004 (ENS) - The Bush administration will press forward with its plan to bury much of the nation's nuclear waste beneath Nevada's Yucca Mountain, a top Energy Department official told the Senate Energy Committee on Tuesday.

Opponents of the plan say a federal court ruling issued last week effectively derailed the project, but Deputy Energy Secretary Kyle McSlarrow hailed the court's decision as "an enormous victory."

The court found the federal government's 10,000-year federal safety requirement for the highly radioactive waste is illegal because it is inconsistent with the recommendations of the National Academy of Sciences.

But the court also rejected Nevada's constitutional challenge to the repository and McSlarrow said this overshadows the concern about the safety standard.

"Everything regarding site selection and standards was upheld except for one thing," he said.

The project is "still on track" and the administration will submit a license application for the site by the end of the year," McSlarrow told Senators. McSlarrow

Energy Department Deputy Secretary Kyle McSlarrow serves as the chief operating officer of the department. (Photo courtesy Energy Department )
The Yucca Mountain site was first identified as a possible location for storage of the nation's nuclear waste in 1987, but the project has been beset with criticism and skepticism.

The facility is the intended destination for a total of 77,000 tons of highly radioactive nuclear waste from Defense Department sites and spent nuclear fuel from the 103 operating nuclear reactors across the United States.

The Deputy Energy Secretary said he expects the facility will open and begin receiving shipments of nuclear waste in 2010.

But even some supporters of the project do not share McSlarrow's optimism.

"This is an ominous situation," Senator Pete Domenici, a New Mexico Republican, said of the court ruling.

The court did not specify how far out into the future the government must assure the safety of the site, but noted that the National Academy of Sciences report recommended a standard that would cover 300,000 years, when some project radioactive releases from the site to peak.

Critics of the project say this standard cannot be met and Domenici agrees.

He told colleagues it is impossible for scientists to determine the safety requirements for the site beyond 10,000 years.

"That is almost as far out as civilization has been in existence," Domenici said. "There was essentially nothing in the world 10,000 years ago that had to do with mankind."

Yucca Mountain

The repository site, located 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada on the edge of the Nevada Nuclear Test Site, was approved by Congress and President George W. Bush in 2002. (Photo courtesy Energy Department)
A key concern for supporters is that the law that identified the Yucca Mountain site for the repository blocks consideration of any other site.

Sustained delay to or failure to proceed with the Yucca Mountain project would force state governments to deal with the waste.

And the nuclear waste problem is growing in scope and expense.

As of 2003, nuclear reactors in the United States had generated some 54,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel and by the year 2035, the United States will have produced more than twice that amount.

Several court cases have ruled that the federal government is liable for the costs of storing the nuclear waste until the Yucca Mountain site is ready.

The industry says that total bill could be some $56 billion - the first of several cases that could determine that figure began this week.

States are in no position to oversee or regulate long-term waste storage, Domenici said, and this could cause some to begin to shut down nuclear power plants.

"It is terrifically important that we find a solution to this," said Domenici. "The entire nuclear power industry in the United States could stand or fall with this interpretation."


One of the storage tunnels within Yucca Mountain. (Photo courtesy DOE)
McSlarrow said the administration is still reviewing the court's ruling, but told the committee he could not see why the project could not proceed.

"It is unlikely that anything that might occur on a post 10,000-year standard would cause us to revise the 10,000 year standard," said McSlarrow, who noted that the ruling approved of the 10,000 year standard.

The court suggested two possible options for dealing with the 10,000 year compliance period: either federal agencies could revise their regulations to extend the compliance period beyond 10,000 years or Congress could intervene and pass legislation giving agencies permission to maintain the 10,000 year standard.

The ruling could also be appealed to the Supreme Court.

Changing the law fits the bill for Idaho Senator Larry Craig, who called the decision "a bump in the road."

"We will change the language so the judges can look at it again," said Craig, a Republican.

But changing the law would be far from easy - Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry is critical of the Yucca Mountain project, which is also opposed by both Nevada Senators.

Critics of the Yucca Mountain plan note that federal officials have raised an array of concerns about the project, including a finding that the manufactured storage containers in which the government plans to store nuclear waste at the facility will probably leak.


The nation's 103 nuclear power plants produce 20 percent of its electricity. (Photo courtesy Tennessee Emergency Management Agency)
There are also funding concerns swirling around the project. In its latest budget request, the Bush administration proposed moving the majority of funding for the repository "off budget."

That funding proposal was "not well thought out," said Domenici, because the budget process does not permit the Bush request.

The problem is forcing the Congress to scramble to meet the $880 million funding request - the House budget only includes $131 million for Yucca Mountain.

McSlarrow acknowledged that funding below the administration's request could stall the project, but said "we are going to work with Congress to ensure we get the funding stream we need."

Kentucky Republican Senator Jim Bunning criticized the administration for requesting cuts in funding for research projects designed to restart the nation's commercial nuclear power industry.

Although nuclear power produces some 20 percent of the nation's electricity, the industry has not ordered a new plant since 1973.

"If we do not expend more dollars on research and development of nuclear power, we are never, ever going to open another nuclear power plant," Bunning said. "If this country is going to have a new nuclear power plant, the federal government is going to have to subsidize it."