Mountain of Government Waste at Yucca | Citizens Against Government Waste
The WasteWatcher: The Staff Blog of Citizens Against Government Waste

Mountain of Government Waste at Yucca

The WasteWatcher is the staff blog of Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) and the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste (CCAGW). For questions, contact blog@cagw.org.


Since the 1970s, the U.S. has been searching for a long-term site to store its nuclear waste. The nation’s spent nuclear fuel, which can remain radioactive for thousands of years, is currently sitting in more than 100 temporary facilities 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. After approximately $15 billion has been spent on the project and federal courts across the country have reiterated the federal government’s obligation to store the waste, President Obama is intent on killing the Yucca Mountain repository.

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. The GAO’s review 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 the 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 further demonstrated the absence of transparency and integrity involved in the process to close the Yucca Mountain repository, declaring 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.”

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 a June 10, 2011 report accompanying the fiscal year 2012 Energy and Water Appropriations bill, 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 $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 restart the search for another long-term nuclear waste storage location. The House Appropriations Committee included $35 million for the Yucca Mountain program in its fiscal year 2012 Energy and Water Appropriations bill, and directed the NRC to complete a license review for the repository. If lawmakers want to demonstrate that they truly make decisions with the best interest of the entire nation in mind, the Senate should maintain the funding level for the Yucca Mountain project that is currently in the House version of the bill and begin bringing the program back to life.

P.J. Austin

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