Revive the Yucca Mountain Project | Citizens Against Government Waste

Revive the Yucca Mountain Project

The WasteWatcher

On August 13, 2013, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled 2-1 that the Obama administration must resume consideration of Yucca Mountain as a repository for the nation’s nuclear waste.  The ruling was the latest event in the quest to resolve the decades-old battle over where the country should store its roughly 70,000 metric tons of nuclear waste.

In the 1970s, the government began searching for a long-term site to store its nuclear waste.  Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA) in 1982; the legislation called for the development of repositories to dispose of high-level radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel.  Nuclear reactor operators and their customers have been required to pay taxes and fees into a Nuclear Waste Fund in exchange for a government guarantee to use the collected revenue to create a safe, long-term repository for the spent nuclear fuel.  Nine sites were reviewed and in 1987, Congress amended the NWPA and directed the Department of Energy (DOE) to focus only on Yucca Mountain, located in the heart of the Nevada desert 90 miles north of Las Vegas.  After 15 years of further review, Congress approved the site in July 2002.

In 2008, DOE submitted a license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to complete construction and make operational the repository under Yucca Mountain.  Yet despite $15.4 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 Nevada lawmakers, led by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), are 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.”

The president followed through on this promise by zeroing out funding for Yucca Mountain in his fiscal year 2012 budget, with the intent of removing the site from consideration as a long-term nuclear waste repository.  The removal of funding from the budget followed DOE’s withdrawal of support in 2009 for the Yucca Mountain license.  The agency claimed that “[Yucca Mountain] was not an attractive solution for storing nuclear waste in the United States.”

DOE’s decision resulted in 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 the 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 then-NRC Chairman Gregory B. Jaczko “was not forthcoming with other commissioners” regarding certain aspects of the NRC’s review of DOE’s Yucca Mountain repository license application.  For example, even though the commissioners and chairman of the NRC have equal responsibility and decision-making authority, 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 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.  This spent fuel, which can remain radioactive for thousands of years, is currently sitting in more than 70 facilities scattered across the country, often within close proximity to highly-populated metropolitan areas.  States and utilities filed more than 70 lawsuits against the government for partial breach of contract, successfully winning $2.2 billion in damages.  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.”

Unfortunately, the August 13 appeals court decision alone will likely not be enough to revive Yucca Mountain.  The ruling only directs the NRC to continue its review of Yucca as long as funding is available, not to continue the effort indefinitely.  In an August 15, 2013 ABC News article, a senior aide on the Senate Energy and Commerce Committee stated that, “although the decision compels the NRC to resume its examination of the Yucca Mountain's suitability for waste storage, the amount of money it has for that purpose, $11 million, may not be enough.” 

With $15.4 billion already committed to the Yucca Mountain project and no clear, feasible alternative site or 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 only obstacle to the project is politics.  If lawmakers want to demonstrate that they truly make decisions with the best interests of the entire nation in mind, they should begin to bring Yucca Mountain back to life.

  -- P.J. Austin

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