Seven years ago, President Barack Obama, urged by then Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid drove a stake through the heart of a controversial and costly plan to build an underground repository for the nation’s nuclear waste in the Nevada desert.
Reid and other Nevada officials said they would never allow Congress and the White House to dump tens of thousands of tons of nuclear waste at the base of Yucca Mountain, just 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, despite recommendations by the Department of Energy and government expenditures of more than $15 billion.
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But the long-moribund Yucca Mountain nuclear repository project is very much alive again with President Trump and many Republicans now pressing for action in Congress to reauthorize the project. The Republican president has included $120 million in his fiscal 2018 budget proposal as an initial step towards licensing the project and clearing it for completion.
Just last week, Energy Secretary Rick Perry testified in support of the project during an appearance before the House Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee. “We have a moral and national security obligation to come up with a long-term solution, finding the safest repositories available,” Perry told the lawmakers.
As surprising as it may seem, there is currently no U.S. facility available to permanently store spent nuclear fuel and other high-level waste from nuclear power plants and reactors. Most waste that has been created over decades is simply kept on site at nuclear plants around the country, stored in concrete cooling pools or casks.
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Before Obama pulled the plug on the project, the government had begun underground tunneling and preliminary planning to ship more than 70,000 metric tons of nuclear waste at 120 operating and retired reactors to the Nevada desert location for indefinite storage deep below the surface.
However, opponents and environmentalists insisted that the project was too dangerous because of the possibility of long-term seepage of radioactive material into the groundwater and the risk of accidents and spills in transporting so much spent nuclear material cross country in trains and trucks. Nevada lawmakers and boosters also feared that the repository would scare off tourists.
Now, Republican leaders in Nevada are leading the charge against a revival of the Yucca Mountain project, including Sen. Dean Heller and Gov. Brian Sandoval.
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The GOP governor complained last week that Perry’s call for renewing the project was a “complete blindside” of his state and a “prime example of federal overreach.” Heller, meanwhile, denounced Perry’s comments as “irresponsible, reckless and ... a blatant disregard for the state of Nevada.”
Heller is up for reelection next year and is widely considered to be one of the most vulnerable GOP incumbent senators in the country. As he struggles to curry favor with Nevada voters, Heller has had to come down hard against the Yucca Mountain project, which is widely unpopular in his state. One recent poll found that 55 percent of residents said they would be less likely to vote for a candidate who supports storing nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain.
Last Friday, Heller also announced in a joint news conference with Sandoval that he was opposed to the Senate Republican plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, at least in its current form, largely because of its deep cuts in Medicaid. “It’s going to be very difficult to get me to a yes,” he said.
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Heller’s double-barreled opposition to GOP policy – both on health care and nuclear waste disposal – isn’t making him any friends with the Senate GOP leadership or the Trump White House. Apart from issues of safety, Heller has raised numerous concerns about the long-term costs of reviving the Yucca Mountain project.
On top of the $15 billion already spent on the project, the Department of Energy’s best estimate is that the government would have to spend an additional $82 billion to complete and operate the project, Heller said. Moreover, it’s far from clear how much money nuclear power consumers would contribute to the overall cost through payments to a Nuclear Waste Fund.
“We need to re-evaluate the whole nuclear waste cost question,” Heller said recently. “There is a business case to be made against Yucca Mountain. DOE’s own cost estimates for Yucca Mountain say that the Nuclear Waste Fund will only pay about 80 percent of the total life-cycle cost – more than $77 billion.”
“The remaining $19 billion will have to come from annual appropriations voted on by Congress – that means more money paid by taxpayers,” he said in a statement.
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The Department of Energy began drilling a five-mile tunnel through the mountain in 1984 to create the vast underground repository, and by 1997, DOE 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 DOE 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.
However, the real blow to the project came with the election of Obama, who campaigned in 2008 vowing to kill the project. The Energy Department in 2010 shut down the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, which had been running the Yucca project.
In a stunning reversal in October 2014, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) issued a long-delayed report on the site’s suitability for vast shipments of spent nuclear fuel, concluding that it would be safe for storing nuclear waste. The 780-page staff report concluded the site “with reasonable expectation” could satisfy federal licensing requirements.”
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Now, with the Republicans in charge of both the White House and Congress, the Yucca Mountain project has a new lease on life, even though there are signs that the proposed repository may be woefully inadequate to handle long-term demands.
A report by the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Nuclear Waste Council in September 2016 warned that the nation’s existing inventory of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste already exceeds the 70,000 metric tons that could be disposed of at Yucca Mountain under current statutory limits. Continued operation of the existing fleet of reactors is expected to generate an additional 70,000 metric tons in years to come.
“Most importantly, no resolution of the Yucca Mountain controversy will erase the record of management failures and the loss of trust that have brought the nuclear waste program to its current state,” the report stated.