The estimated total cost to research, build, operate and ultimately close down a repository for spent fuel and high-level waste at Yucca Mountain has gone up but the fee paid by US utilities for the disposal of spent fuel is to remain unchanged.

The US Department of Energy’s (DoE’s) latest estimate puts the total system lifecycle cost for the country’s geologic repository at $96.2 billion in 2007 dollars ($79.3 billion in 2000 dollars). This represents a 38% increase on the last published estimate, which put the cost at $57.5 billion (2000 dollars) in 2001.

The estimate covers costs over the planned 150-year lifespan of the programme from its beginnings in 1983 to closure and decommissioning in 2133, and includes over $16 billion for inflation as well as a “substantial” increase in the amount of waste to be shipped and stored at the facility. Increases in raw material costs and a refinement of the repository design have also been factored in. The $92.6 billion estimate is made up of costs incurred to date since the launch of the programme in 1983 ($13.5 billion); construction, operation and decommissioning ($54.8 billion); transportation ($19.5 billion); and other programme activities ($8.4 billion).

Ward Sproat, director of the DoE’s Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management (OCRWM), described the estimate as “reasonable given inflation and the expected increase in the amount of spent nuclear fuel from existing reactors with licence renewals.”

The estimate allows for an expected 30% increase in the amount of commercial spent fuel to be sent to the repository from the 2000 figure of 83,800 tonnes of heavy metal (tHM) to 2007’s estimated 109,300 tHM. This would extend the transportation period for shipment of fuel to the repository by 16 years and the emplacement period by 25 years. The increase is the result of existing and anticipated licence renewals at operating US nuclear plants but does not allow for any new nuclear plants.

The costs of Yucca Mountain are split between utility customers and taxpayers, reflecting the share of commercial wastes and government-managed nuclear materials (defence-related wastes) to be disposed of. As the current defence share is estimated at 19.6%, utility ratepayers are expected to provide an estimated $77.3 billion towards the total cost of building and operating Yucca Mountain. The DoE said that the present levy of ¢0.1 paid by utilities into the Nuclear Waste Fund per kilowatt hour of nuclear energy generated remains adequate to cover utility customers’ share of total costs. As of late 2007, payments and interest credited to the fund totalled $27.2 billion.

The DoE receives money from the Nuclear Waste Fund through Congressional appropriations, meaning that the scheme’s progress is reliant on the budget awarded by Congress regardless of the amount accrued in the fund. In its 2007 Civilian Radioactive Waste Management Fee Adequacy Assessment Report, the OCRWM warned that budget reductions are forcing the DoE to reassess the repository schedule. “The total lifecycle cost estimate and fee adequacy assessment assumed consistent and sufficient funding. Future fee assessments may need to evaluate a cost scenario in which consistent and sufficient funding each year is not assumed,” it stated.

The lifecycle cost analysis assumes that construction of the facility, for which a licence application was submitted in June, will be completed for initial operations by 2013, with waste receipt starting in 2017. Potential delays to the construction schedule are not taken into account.

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