The US Department of Energy (DoE) has spent $9 billion over the past 20 years developing the Yucca Mountain spent fuel repository – a permanent disposal scheme to bury up to 70,000 tonnes of spent fuel in the Nevada desert, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas. Statements made in late February by the DoE reflect president Barack Obama and energy secretary Steven Chu’s view that nuclear waste storage at Yucca Mountain is now no longer an option; consequently, funding for the facility was “slashed.” This has led many analysts to conclude that the proposed repository is in reality dead, although a formal docketing process continues. While some industry analysts still hold hope for the formal licensing process to continue, money for the facility, according to FY2010 DoE funding highlights, is limited to those costs necessary to answer inquiries from the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

On the other hand, political cartoonists in the Las Vegas Review have compared the unfolding story of the death of Yucca Mountain to writing Dracula’s obituary: it has been done before.

Just this past September, the NRC had formally docketed the DoE licence application in a milestone for the spent nuclear fuel industry. Delegates to the 12th International High-Level Radioactive Waste Management Conference in Las Vegas at that time toasted each other as news of the docketing came in.

For Edward “Ward” Sproat, the then US DoE Director of the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management (OCRWM), who had shepherded the application forward, it was an astonishing accomplishment.

At the time, he told me, “This is a major step forward, however, it is not necessarily the end game. We want to build a first of a kind facility in the world and there is going to be a small army of regulators and contractors poring over the application process in detail with intense scrutiny of the scientific and technical issues. It will be interesting to watch the dynamics of this process unfold. And while it is a major step forward, the ultimate goal is to get the licence to build and open the repository. And that is not assured yet. We are making progress, but we are not there yet.”

Seven months later, Sproat is gone and the office effectively beheaded. Christopher Kouts, a DoE bureaucrat, is now acting as both the director and the chief operating officer in addition to fulfilling his own responsibilities as principal deputy director.

Steven Chu, president Obama’s pick for energy secretary, now appears on the defensive regarding the role carbon-free nuclear can play in the US energy sector, even though he made combating global warming and researching renewable energy sources top priorities as his former position as director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

At his confirmation hearings, Chu was asked repeatedly about his positions on nuclear energy. “I think these are very thorny questions,” responded Chu, when asked by Senator Lisa Murkowski about disposal of spent nuclear fuel at Yucca Mountain. The US Nuclear Waste Policy Act unconditionally obligates the DoE to take and dispose of spent nuclear fuel and the projected taxpayer liability for DoE’s failure to do so since 1998 to date is $11 billion and growing.

“I understand that President-elect Obama has said he opposes that [Yucca Mountain],” Murkowski asked. “If confirmed, what do you propose to do, in the short term, to meet the government’s obligation as it relates to the nuclear waste issue?”

“The President has stated his position very clearly,” replied Chu, a Nobel laureate. “On the other hand, the Department of Energy has a legal obligation to safely dispose, [and to] provide a plan that allows the safe disposal of this nuclear waste. And indeed I am supportive of the fact that the nuclear industry is, [and] should have to be part of our energy mix in this century. And so, in going forward with that, we do need a plan on how to dispose of that waste safely, over a long period of time…so it will occupy certainly a significant part of my time and energy.”

A conspicuous absence

A significant part of Chu’s time and energy pursuing waste disposal, however, may now take him far a field from Yucca Mountain. Political analysts contend that Obama’s opposition to Yucca Mountain is simply a matter of politics. Former Democratic presidential candidates Kerry and Gore lost the state because they did not vocalize their opposition to the proposed facility. Obama did not make that mistake and carried the state with more than 100,000 over his pro-nuclear and pro-Yucca Mountain Republican adversary John McCain by taking a strong stance against the proposed repository. It is now payback time.

Nevada Senator Harry Reid, who had successfully blocked further funding for the repository for the current year in January, boasted the already reduced budget for the nuclear waste site would be cut ‘significantly’ for the remainder of 2009. And for 2010, Reid said that the White House spending request would contain ‘little if anything at all.’

During his long run for the presidency, Obama campaigned on an environmental plank that would place the US on a track to reduce its CO2 emissions to 80% of 1990 levels by 2050. It is not surprising therefore that a visit to the Obama White House website reveals an energy and environmental agenda long on renewables and clean coal (http-www-whitehouse-gov-agenda-energy-and-environment).

What is surprising and conspicuously absent, however, is the word “nuclear.” The technology is not even mentioned once. It is ironic that the closing bullet on the Energy and Environment Agenda on the website states: “Make the U.S. a Leader on Climate Change,” yet the technology that produces 70% of the world’s carbon-free electricity remains completely ignored.

In late March, Senator Reid and secretary Chu were scheduling meetings to reconcile competing plans for a so-called ‘blue ribbon’ nuclear waste commission to examine alternatives to storing the radioactive material at Yucca Mountain. While Chu has been moving to form such commission, the Nevada Senators have introduced a bill for congressional leaders to make appointments to the group.

In the meantime, the dismissal of Yucca Mountain has not gone unnoticed. Senator McCain challenged Chu in March over the administration’s view on nuclear spent fuel disposal: “To say after 20 years and $9 billion dollars spent on Yucca Mountain that it’s not an option, to me is a remarkable statement,” (See ‘Chu and McCain clash over Yucca Mountain’ for a more detailed transcript). McCain, who as a presidential candidate had advocated building 50 new nuclear power plants by 2030, was concerned that leaving spent fuel sitting around in pools all over America hinders the industry from building new nuclear power plants because without Yucca, no long term strategy for storing spent nuclear fuel exists. He is not alone in this belief.

Chu said the administration was seeking the best advice of deeply knowledgeable people, and plans to come up with a new plan for storing spent nuclear fuel later this year. According to an industry commentator who tracks global developments in the renewable and carbon-free energy industry, Chu is working on options that will include more dry cask storage on a local, regional and national level, and for the longer term, on reprocessing. In the meantime, Chu cited assurances from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that interim storage of waste at nuclear plants is safe.

NRC chairman David Klein said in Congressional testimony mid-March that it is revising its estimates of how long nuclear waste can be kept safely at power-generating facilities. Klein said that the agency could decide this summer to allow spent nuclear fuel to be stored in above-ground casks for at least 120 years, which is 20 years longer than current policy. Such a decision would benefit manufacturers of dry cask spent fuel storage systems. Given the current US financial woes and Washington’s penchant for avoiding hard decisions, push substantial conversation regarding a permanent solution into the distant and dark future.

Moving away from politics?

The September 2008 NRC docketing of the Yucca Mountain licence application triggered a three-year deadline with a possible one-year extension, set by Congress, for the NRC to decide whether to grant a construction authorisation. The docketing in effect was a statement that the DoE’s application was sufficiently complete for the NRC staff to begin its full technical review. What that essentially does is keep the legal process alive and continuing forward so that the repository may very well continue to develop and is moving forward as part of a legal process.

According to one Oak Ridge National Laboratory staffer, the significance of the docketing is the movement of Yucca Mountain from political to scientific and technical scrutiny. Many nuclear advocates may be encouraged because the Yucca repository has been travelling down a road that has crossed from an unclear political terrain onto to a more concrete and well-established scientific terrain where it is easier to defend against political mudslinging. “The nuclear community now has a formalized way to defend and argue for the establishment of the repository,” he said.

Many people in the US nuclear industry had hoped that the Obama Administration would fund the NRC review of the science and let the scientific evaluation of the repository run its course – in effect borrowing a line from Obama’s inauguration address to “restore science to its rightful place.” While Senator Reid opposes Yucca, there are more than 30 other states with spent fuel and those senators may still see Yucca as a reasonable course – especially given the investment in time and dollars to date and the current financial disarray.

From a technical point of view, the NRC must now assess whether Yucca Mountain can meet a one-million-year safety standard established by the US Environmental Protection Agency. If Congress funds the review process adequately, it is pretty likely that the ultimate licensing decision from the NRC will be positive, according to Per Peterson, University of California Berkeley, Department of Nuclear Engineering.

Yucca Mountain has been scrutinised using comprehensive computer simulations called process models to analyse primary repository processes to assess the long-term impact of the spent fuel and high-level waste on people and the environment. These include examinations of:

• How climate change and different damaging events such as earthquakes or volcanoes could affect repository safety;

• Water infiltration into the mountain, movement above the repository level, and seepage into the repository tunnels and its effects on the engineered waste packages and drip shields;

• The effects on the waste itself and the transport of radionuclides through the rock below the repository and the transport of radionuclides in the groundwater.

US industry reaction to the undermining of Yucca is disappointment: the administration seems to be throwing out plan A before there is a plan B. But one spent fuel expert said in March that the industry has not given up on Yucca yet. “The NRC review continues and we can hope that once science is added, the administration will stick to its word to depend on science. There can be a plan B, but Yucca needs to move forward. If the blue ribbon panel is worth its science credentials, it will await the outcome of the NRC review and see what it says.”

US politics aside, one Oak Ridge staffer has said that the global nuclear industry is just hoping to see the Yucca licensing process to go forward to show that the industry can get through an onerous licence process with full public participation. The process will not only benefit the US programme but also many country programmes and regional initiatives in Europe, such as SAPIERR (Strategic Action Plan for Implementation of European Regional Repositories) which held its final symposium in Brussels in January.

Yet, if Senator Reid has his way, (and it appears that he has) the DoE may not have the budget to continue the licensing process, and the future viability of the repository – whose move-in date for spent nuclear fuel has been repeatedly delayed, most recently from 2018 to 2020 – may be a moot point. Some people cynically conjecture that Yucca will be kept alive until 2010 for political reasons only, so that Reid could win a dramatic termination for his re-election campaign.

Impact on new build

Although it has been argued that the future of the US nuclear energy industry rests on the licensing of Yucca Mountain, few seem to share that contention today. While it is true that several states, including California, cannot proceed with new nuclear build in the US unless a satisfactory spent fuel resolution emerges, there is growing support for simply leaving the waste where it is, waiting for new technologies to be developed that can more effectively recycle and burn the remaining fuel produced by the nation’s fleet of light water reactors.

As a pre-requisite for new reactor licensing, NRC is required to meet a so-called waste confidence rule that there is a place to dispose spent fuel. Until recently, the waste confidence findings stated that a geologic repository would be available by 2025 and that spent nuclear fuel could be safely stored for at least 30 years beyond the licensed operation of a reactor. In October, the NRC sought public comment on proposed extensions of these timings. It proposed to revise the rule to say that repository capacity will be available within 50 to 60 years after the licensed operation of any reactor, and that spent fuel generated in any reactor can be safely stored without significant environmental impact for at least 60 years beyond the licensed operation of the reactor. Changing the rule would relieve immediate pressure for Yucca, though acquiring a Yucca license would show that the government can deal with the complex issues of ultimate disposal.

A future in recycling?

Although perhaps technically suitable, the current US policy for how to use Yucca Mountain is flawed, according to Peterson. He suggests that some of the 63,000 metric tons of commercial spent fuel may well be attractive to recycle in the longer term, even if it is not economically or technically attractive at the moment. In effect, he proposes amending the Nuclear Waste Policy Act into a more rational policy for managing nuclear waste.

“Over the last 40 years, a very broad scientific consensus has emerged that nuclear waste can be managed safely by a combination of recycling and deep geologic disposal,” Peterson told the San Francisco Chronicle in March. “There’s political controversy, but the technical consensus is that the level of isolation will be sufficient to protect long-term public health and the environment.”

He suggests using Yucca Mountain to store materials “unlikely to be economic to recycle in the intermediate term, but [which] are judged to have potential long-term economic value and thus warrant retrievable storage.” As an example, he points to deep-burn transmutation fuels discharged from NGNP-type reactors.

He adds, “A combination of onsite and centralised interim storage would be used for all materials that would have potential economic value to recycle in the intermediate term (within the next 60 years or so). This would include most or all spent fuel discharged by current light water reactors.”

Former OCRWM Director Ward Sproat agrees. “In the US, we started on a road to close the nuclear fuel cycle, just like the French do today…but there is no business case for it in our private-sector economy. Having said that, clearly nuclear power and the demand for uranium is growing internationally. The question is at what point in the future will the price of uranium justify recycling nuclear fuel not just from an economic point of view, but also from a resource recovery and utilisation standpoint. It is not clear when that will happen…will it be 20, 30 or 50 years out? Nobody can really predict that right now. I do think it will happen. Nobody knows when.”

What happens now?

Yucca Mountain, never mind a new repository to replace it, would be unlikely to open by 2020. Investigating other sites may run into the same NIMBY problems that Yucca Mountain has faced. Federal centralised interim storage has been proposed repeatedly as a solution, but no such facility has been developed because of, among other reasons, fears that such a facility would evolve into a permanent facility. The simplest solution appears to be continued onsite dry cask storage.

In the absence of a logical alternative, Yucca may yet outlast Harry Reid and the current administration. After all, there is a lot of momentum built after 20 years and $9 billion. That might be the best the industry can hope for right now.

Author Info:

Chris Gadomski is an energy analyst and a member of the faculty at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs where he teaches graduate courses on energy and the environment and on the economics and finance of energy.

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