Controversial Nuclear Waste Site Gets Greenlight from Regulators
Policy + Politics

Controversial Nuclear Waste Site Gets Greenlight from Regulators

The multibillion-dollar Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository project has languished for years in the Nevada desert because of opposition from the Obama administration, environmentalists and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV). The decades-old idea of gathering the bulk of the nation’s nuclear waste and burying it underground about 100 miles outside of Las Vegas has for years seemed like a pipe dream for the U.S. nuclear power industry.

Now, in a surprise reversal of fortune, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) issued a much-delayed report on Thursday on the site’s suitability for vast shipments of spent nuclear fuel, saying it would be safe for storing nuclear waste. The 780-page staff report concluded the site “with reasonable expectation” could satisfy federal licensing requirements.

Related: Obama Favors More Nuclear Power But Blocks Waste Storage Site   

The NRC’s findings triggered calls from GOP lawmakers to revive the project, which so far has cost the federal government and industry nearly $11 billion – and would cost substantially more if it’s brought back from the dead. And if Republicans take control of the Senate in the November 4 midterm election and Reid is ousted as majority leader, which looks increasingly likely, then proponents of Yucca Mountain will be back in business. 

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AL), the ranking member on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said the NRC staff study demonstrates that the site is “a safe, worthwhile investment” that should be allowed to move forward, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal. 

Timothy Frazier, a former Department of Energy official who now heads the Bipartisan Policy Center’s nuclear waste program, said in an interview Friday that the new report “does clearly state that the requirements are satisfied and Yucca Mountain technically is acceptable.” However, Frazier cautioned that the study’s findings don’t guarantee that the project “is back” and that proponents face many political and legal obstacles to its completion. 

“If the Senate flips, that will allow at least some funding to show up in Senate appropriations for Yucca Mountain that will then marry up with some funding in the House appropriations, so you can actually get funding to continue work for Yucca Mountain,” Frazier said, also noting that “unless that funding is on some really big appropriations bill or continuing resolution,” President Obama would probably not sign it. 

Related: Billions Unaccounted for in Nuclear Waste Management    

“While [the NRC report] is a step in the right direction for Yucca Mountain, it doesn’t fix the opposition that is out there – at least within the administration and certainly in the state of Nevada,” Frazier added. 

The Yucca Mountain nuclear waste facility was authorized by the Nuclear Waste Policy Act amendments back in 1987. It was meant to be a deep geological storage site for civilian and military spent nuclear waste from power plants, nuclear submarines and weapons systems, and nuclear waste cleanup projects.   

In 1984, the Energy Department began drilling a five-mile tunnel through the mountain to create the underground repository, and by 1997, the department began experiments to test what would happen if heat-generating nuclear waste was stored in metal canisters beneath the desert surface. 

The project suffered a major setback in 2004 when the federal Court of Appeals in Washington ruled on a suit brought against Yucca Mountain by the state of Nevada. The court ruled that the Department of Energy would have to prove the repository could safely hold the wastes for hundreds of thousands of years, and not just the 10,000 years called for in the Energy Department’s plan.

Related: Nuclear Waste: Agency Racks Up $16B in Cost Overruns    

But as The New York Times noted Thursday, the “real blow” came with the election of President Obama – who in his 2008 campaign vowed to kill the project, as well as from the relentless efforts by Reid to kill funding to continue to build the project and pursue a license to operate it. The Energy Department in 2010 shut down the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, which had been running the Yucca project. 

The overall estimated price tag of the project was $35.9 billion, said the Nuclear Energy Institute, a trade organization. But only $10.8 billion of that had been spent before the project was put on hold. Without a centralized repository structure like Yucca Mountain, the nuclear power industry has had to store the waste onsite, in large cooling pools or in dry casks. 

The NRC staff report was based on a safety review of a license application for Yucca Mountain submitted at the tail end of the GOP administration of President George W. Bush. The study focused on whether the natural geology of Yucca Mountain – coupled with a system of man-made barriers planned for the mountain – could prevent decaying radioactive particles from leaking into groundwater over periods of up to a million years. 

After assessing the relevant portions of the license applications, the NRC staff found it was reasonable to expect it “satisfies the requirements” for long-term nuclear waste storage. 

But proponents and opponents differ sharply over the risks in moving ahead. Environmentalists worry about long-term contamination of underground water or the water supplies from nearby communities. Critics fear the repository could be damaged by an earthquake. And public officials in Nevada and elsewhere are concerned about accidents or spills when the waste is transported by trains or trucks to the desert site. 

A revival of the project would almost certainly touch off an environmental debate that could eclipse concerns about building the Keystone XL oil pipeline between Canada and the U.S. Gulf Coast. 

Tom Kauffman, a spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute, said in an interview before the NRC report was out that the Yucca Mountain project “is not completely dead” and could eventually be reinstated. “It’s caught up in politics, and politics change. And there’s still a lot of support for Yucca” in Congress. 

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