A Glimmer of Hope at Yucca Mountain | Citizens Against Government Waste

A Glimmer of Hope at Yucca Mountain

The WasteWatcher

On October 16, 2014, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) issued its Yucca Mountain Safety Evaluation Report 3, which confirmed what unbiased observers have long known: the facility meets the government’s long-term regulatory and safety requirements as a nuclear-waste repository.  Progress on opening Yucca has continually stalled due to a variety of factors, but chief among them has been the opposition of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who has used his position of power to thwart efforts to open the site.  Now that the Republican Party has captured the majority in the Senate, common sense may finally win the day.

The U.S. has been searching for a long-term site to store its nuclear waste since the 1970s.  The nation’s spent nuclear fuel, which can remain radioactive for thousands of years, is currently sitting in more than 70 reactor sites scattered across the country, often within close proximity to highly-populated metropolitan areas.  In 2008, after decades of examination and dozens of lawsuits, the Department of Energy (DOE) submitted a license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to complete construction and make operational the repository under Yucca Mountain, located in the heart of the Nevada desert, 90 miles north of Las Vegas.   Yet despite more than $15 billion in expenditures on the project and federal courts across the country reiterating the federal government’s obligation to store the waste, President Obama and Sen. Reid have effectively used their influence to halt progress on the project.

As a presidential candidate, Mr. Obama pledged to voters (and Nevada voters in particular) that, if elected, he would do all that he could to make sure the Yucca Mountain project never saw the light of day.  In a May 20, 2007 letter to the editor of the Nevada Review Journal, candidate Obama stated, “I believe all spending on Yucca Mountain should be redirected to other uses…All Nevadans should know that as president, I will bring to this issue not just independent judgment and careful deliberation, but a personal appreciation that comes from my own experience of living in the back yard of hazardous nuclear materials.”

Making good on this promise has been subject to widespread bipartisan criticism among lawmakers, with many using the findings of an April 8, 2011 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report to argue for the revival of the project.  GAO determined that DOE Secretary Steven Chu’s decision to shutter the Yucca Mountain program was based purely on political calculations.  According to the report, “social and political opposition to a permanent repository, not technical issues, is the key obstacle.”  Furthermore, based on GAO’s assessment, the death of the Yucca Mountain project could delay the opening of a new waste disposal site by more than 20 years.

A June 6, 2011 report by the NRC inspector general (IG) further demonstrated the absence of transparency and integrity involved in the process to close the Yucca Mountain repository.  The IG declared that NRC Chairman Gregory B. Jaczko “was not forthcoming with other commissioners” regarding certain aspects of the NRC’s review of the DOE’s Yucca Mountain repository license application.  For example, even though the commissioners and chairman of the NRC all have equal responsibility and authority in commission decisions, Chairman Jaczko “failed to fully inform the other four members that he was issuing budget guidance that would essentially halt the commission’s work on the project, which was to decide whether the Energy Department should be allowed to build and operate the [Yucca Mountain] dump.”

The delay on Yucca Mountain has also proven extremely costly for taxpayers.  In accordance with the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act, nuclear reactor operators and their customers have been paying taxes on produced waste in exchange for a government guarantee to use the collected revenue to create a safe, long-term repository for the spent nuclear fuel.  The government’s failure to produce a viable storage location has resulted in overcrowding of nuclear waste in on-site cooling pools, forcing companies to build expensive above-ground storage casks.  States and utilities have filed more than 70 lawsuits against the government for partial breach of contract, successfully winning $2.2 billion in damages thus far. 

In its June 10, 2011 report accompanying the fiscal year 2012 Energy and Water Appropriations Act, the House Appropriations Committee castigated the administration’s plans to shut down Yucca, noting that “The Department of Energy now estimates that taxpayers will have to pay nearly $16.2 billion in damages by 2020, and an additional $500 million for each year after 2020 that the Department does not fulfill its legal obligations.”  According to a March 16, 2011 article in the Orange County Register, “Payouts to nuclear plant operators – to essentially cover their costs for storing the spent nuclear fuel that the government was supposed to handle – could total as much as $50 billion.”

With more than $15 billion already committed to the Yucca Mountain project, no clear feasible alternative site, and the absence of any safety, health, or other technical concerns, it simply does not make sense to search for another long-term nuclear waste storage location.  Now that Republicans are in control of the legislative branch, the 114th Congress should make sure that there is money available for Yucca Mountain as soon as possible.

  -- P.J. Austin

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