Chu and McCain clash over Yucca Mountain

10 March 2009

Speaking at a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on March 5, US Department of Labour secretary Steven Chu confirmed that nuclear waste storage at Yucca Mountain is 'not an option'.

The comments come a week after the White House's proposed 2010 fiscal budget essentially cut Yucca Mountain's operating budget to zero.

In the hearing, he and republican senator for Arizona John McCain clashed about the significance about the site. Chu said that he supported reprocessing research, but was concerned about the potential for proliferation. McCain said that the lack of a long-term repository for nuclear fuel was cooling US utilities' enthusiasm for building new nuclear power stations.

When McCain asked, "What is wrong with Yucca Mountain, Dr Chu?," Chu replied, "We have learned a lot more in the last 20-25 years since Yucca mountain .... I think we can do a better job."

"Where?," McCain said.

"Going to your original question about what to do with the spent fuel, the nuclear regulatory agency has said that we can solidify the waste at the current sites and store it without risk to the environment," Chu said.

When McCain went on to ask about plans for spent fuel reprocessing, Chu replied that he supported reprocessing research, but had qualms about the activity's risks of nuclear proliferation.

McCain replied, "And you balance that risk of proliferation versus spent nuclear fuel sitting around in pools in nuclear power plants all over the country and telling industry that we may do some research on reprocessing."

"Let’s separate the issues," Chu said.

"I don’t think they’re separable," McCain said. "I think they’re inextricably tied because it’s clear that industry today is not interested in construction of nuclear power plants because we have no place to store it and we have refused to adopt what is already a proven technology of reprocessing."

"The interim storage of waste – the solidification of waste – is something we can do today," Chu said. "The NRC has said that it can be done safely. That buys us time to formulate a comprehensive plan in how we deal with the nuclear waste. The recycling which I think in the long term is very beneficial - it has the potential for greatly reducing the amount of waste - is something that we have to press on. But the time scale of the recycling development is different - we have a couple of decades quite frankly in my opinion to figure that one out.

The debate ended when McCain said he disagreed, voiced his admiration for Chu and his work, and added: " Nuclear energy has got to be an integral and vital part of America’s energy future if we’re going to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And to say after 20 years and $9 billion spent on Yucca Mountain that there’s not an option, period, to me is a remarkable statement."

This transcript was published on the NEI Nuclear Notes blog (from the Nuclear Energy Institute).

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