Week of December 4, 2006
Snapshot from the Field
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Election Creates Cloudy
Future for $70-Billion
Nevada Nuke Storage Site
Sen. Harry Reid's political ascension will cast another shadow on a project that's been plagued by recurrent uncertainties.
by JACK LYNE, Site Selection
Executive Editor of Interactive Publishing
ovember's elections may've shaken up more than the U.S. political landscape. The results could also possibly alter the location of America's first permanent radioactive waste repository – a US$70- billion federal project that's encountered repeated setbacks and delays.
The big shift comes as part of the Democrats' congressional takeover. That changing of the guard means that Nevada's Harry Reid in January will become U.S. Senate majority leader. Reid has long been a highly vocal foe of locating the repository at Yucca Mountain, the Nevada site 90 miles (144 km.) northwest of Las Vegas that the U.S. Dept. of Energy (DOE) first earmarked for study in 1987.
With his far more powerful position assured, the veteran Nevada senator immediately staked out his Yucca Mountain stance.
The plan "is dead right now," Reid said in a press conference on Nov. 9th, the day after the elections.
The senator vowed major cuts in the Yucca project's funding. The fiscal 2007 Energy and Water Appropriations Bill earmarked $494 million for the Yucca venture.
Those figures "are not acceptable to me," Reid said. Future allocations "will be cut back significantly, that will be for sure," he vowed.
The '07 Yucca allocation was $50 million less than what the Bush administration wanted. And it was roughly half what the DOE said was required to ensure that the Nevada plan stayed on schedule.
As things stand, the project is already running well behind its planned timetable. The Yucca site was scheduled to begin accepting nuclear plant waste in 1998. But the facility today is still at least 10 years from being ready to open, according to DOE officials. The government has already spent $9 billion on the work to create a U.S. nuclear storage site, with $6.5 billion of that outlay specifically for the Yucca site.
Over time, the project's estimated overall cost has also risen sharply. In 2000, the DOE was projecting that building the storage facility and operating it for the first 100 years would require an outlay of almost $30 billion. By 2002, that estimate had risen to $58 billion. Now the DOE is revising that projection once again, anticipating an updated cost figure of more than $70 billion.
"It sure is different now than when I came [to the Senate] in 1986," Reid said of the Yucca political scenario.
Reid to Push for Keeping
Waste at Temporary Sites
Nevada's congressional delegation had little seniority or clout in the 1980s, when Yucca was tapped by the DOE as the lone location that the agency considered for the storage operation. But Reid next year will wield considerable power over congressional affairs. As majority leader, he will have a large say in which pieces of proposed legislation reach the floor for the full Senate's vote.
In addition, the Democratic majority will elevate New Mexico's Jeff Bingaman to the chair of the Senate Energy Committee. He'll replace Pete Domenici, a New Mexico Republican who's strongly supported Yucca storage. Bingaman has also backed the Nevada project, but the Democrat's stance is generally regarded as more flexible.
Reid acknowledged that his more dominant Senate role doesn't automatically signal the Yucca project's death knell.
"I can't do that single- handedly," he said at his press conference.
Reid, in fact, could get considerable resistance from 31 states' congressional delegations, owing to the Yucca alternative that he's advocating: keeping all of the nation's radioactive waste at the temporary sites in 31 states that are now storing spent reactor fuel. In any discussion of nuclear storage, NIMBYism dominates all. Everyone wants the waste safely stored, but no one wants it stored in their area.
Located at 65 nuclear power plants, the temporary sites now store roughly 50,000 tons (45,000 metric tons) of waste in above- ground dry casks. The Yucca site currently has a 77,778- ton (70,000- metric- ton) legal limit on nuclear waste storage. However, the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) earlier this year completed studies that indicated that the repository could be twice as big and store far more waste. The Yucca operation, EPRI researchers concluded, could handle at least 286,000 tons (257,400 metric tons) of waste, and possibly as much 628,000 tons (565,200 metric tons).
Reid, however, contends that the existing storage system is a secure long- term solution.
"We leave [the waste] on- site in dry cask storage, where it is safely and securely stored now and where the nuclear industry estimates it will continue to be safely stored for decades," he asserted in August testimony before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources (CENR). "According to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, it's safe for 100 to 200 years."
Leaving the spent fuels at the 65 temporary sites, Reid added, would eliminate the dangers of transporting the waste and would be less expensive as well. Current cost estimates for employing long- term dry cask storage range between $4.5 billion and $10.5 billion. Reid is advocating funding that storage through the Nuclear Waste Fund, a surcharge of one- tenth of a cent on each kilowatt- hour used by consumers of nuclear- generated electricity. Created by Congress in 1982, the fund now has accumulated $27 billion in charges.
More waste, of course, will accumulate. Together, nuclear power plants, and nuclear weapons and technology produce about 2,000 tons (1,800 metric tons) of waste in the U.S. each year. Added above- ground storage locations are in the offing. The Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), the industry's largest lobbying group, projects that 83 of the 103 active U.S. nuclear reactors will have dry storage capacity by 2050.
At this point, the Yucca issue's political future is exceedingly foggy.
What Yucca Bills Will Surface
In the Reconstituted Congress?
One significant uncertainty centers around what bills will
Reid, for example, joined Nevada Republican John Ensign in jointly sponsoring a Senate bill that proposed storing all spent radioactive waste at the reactors that used the fuel.
Domenici introduced legislation that would've authorized an interim plan for above- ground dry- cask storage at the current temporary sites. The New Mexico Republican, however, also submitted a bill that would've authorized the DOE to begin above- ground storage at the Yucca site in 2010, seven years before the government's earliest estimate for opening the permanent site.
NEI also submitted a "draft bill" for congressional consideration this year. The NEI proposal would've established an interim storage facility at Yucca with at least 44,444 tons (40,000 metric tons) of capacity while the DOE finished the permanent repository. The nuclear energy group also recommended paying Nevada $25 million a year until the temporary site was operative, and then $50 million a year until the permanent Yucca storage site opened. In addition, the NEI proposed paying "volunteer sites" for temporary storage.
"The president has been a strong friend of nuclear," NEI Associate General Counsel Michael Bauser said of the association's draft bill. "We would certainly like to see legislation advance under his administration rather than an unknown who may be better or may be worse."
But 2006's highest- profile bill by far was the Bush administration- backed "fix- Yucca" bill. Also sponsored by Domenici, that proposal would've altered more than a dozen federal laws. The changes were necessary, the DOE contended, in order to obtain the permits, land and licensing necessary to open the repository by the 2017 target date.
Failure of 'Fix Yucca' Likely
To Push Schedule Farther Back
"The probability of making that schedule without the legislation is zero," Edward Sproat, director of the DOE's Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, said at the CENR hearings in August.
But like all of the nuclear storage proposals that surfaced in the '06 session, the fix Yucca bill never made it to the floor for a vote. It did, however, draw some pointed criticism during hearings.
Ensign, for example, called the plan "a very dangerous precedent to start and very dangerous for the national security of the United States."
The proposal contained a number of controversial provisions. One, for example, would've guaranteed the Yucca project's annual funding, removing the allocation from congressional overview. The bill would've also exempted the Yucca operation from the 1976 Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the federal law that authorizes EPA's authority for "cradle- to- grave" hazardous waste control, including generation, transportation, treatment, storage, disposal and cleanup.
"If Yucca were scientifically sound, if it was genuinely safe," said Reid, "we would not have this bill and we would not be here today."
It's unclear at this point which Yucca- related bills, if any, will be reintroduced during the '07 session. Another unknown is how any nuclear storage legislation might fare if it came to a full vote before either house of Congress. The Senate, for example, hasn't dealt with a Yucca issue since July of 2002. That was a 60- 39 vote approving the Yucca storage site, which the DOE had recommended and President Bush had approved.
The 2007 Senate, though, will be a markedly different political animal from the one that voted four and a half years ago. Thirty members of the 2002 Senate have either retired or failed to gain reelection.
All of which leaves the Yucca project hanging in the works. Some members of Congress, in fact, are questioning whether Yucca can ever be completed, considering the project's myriad shifts and setbacks on so many fronts.
Many Yucca Project
Standards Still in Flux
"There's not much to kill," Reid said of the Nevada project.
Energy Dept. Secretary Samuel Bodman allowed earlier this year that the DOE was redoing part of the Yucca operation's design and environmental standards, as well some accompanying research.
''There are problems with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) work that was done," Bodman told the audience at the Second Annual Nuclear Energy Conference, organized by Platts, an energy information subsidiary of The McGraw- Hill Companies.
"There are problems with the EPA standards that are there [at Yucca Mountain]," he continued in his Feb. 13th keynote address. "There are problems with the efforts of the Dept. of Energy. There's plenty of blame to go around.''
Bodman in March of 2005 reported that he had obtained U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) employees' e- mails that indicated that some of USGS's Yucca work was falsified.
The EPA, on the other hand, is working to develop new
The revision of the Yucca operation's design became necessary when project officials decided that stored wastes had to be spread more widely to enhance safety. The original design's closer spacing, they determined, might've raised temperatures inside the mountain to the boiling point, creating steam- related hazards.
The main thrust of Bodman's keynote address at the Platts conference focused on the DOE's Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) plan. Announced by President Bush in his 2006 State of the Union Address, the GNEP would establish an international partnership to reprocess spent nuclear fuel. That reprocessing would make the plutonium contained in the waste usable for nuclear fuel, but not for nuclear weaponry.
The prospect of the GNEP, however, has raised another Yucca- connected issue. Some in the nuclear energy industry are now wondering if the program's recommended reprocessing will, in actual practice, add another time- consuming step to the disposal process. Specifically, they question whether the waste that's left after the useful material is removed will require more analysis before it's deemed safe for permanent storage.
Adding to the complexity is the current shortage of uranium, as well as of the processing facilities for it, such as USEC's planned $2-billion enrichment plant in Piketon, Ohio.
In the meantime, the nuclear industry is understandably eager to get the storage issue resolved. The waste kept at temporary sites is a potential liability. Moreover, the lack of a solid disposal scenario creates doubts about creating new nuclear energy plants. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commissions says that it's anticipating up to 27 new reactors over the next several years, and U.S. utilities have already proposed plans for 30. In fact, as reported by Site Selection in January 2006, several states appear willing to dole out incentives for the new wave of nuclear plants.
Even with all of the uncertainties now in play, the DOE could unilaterally take the next step in moving Yucca storage forward. The department wants to apply for a license for the operation in 2008. The DOE wouldn't need any congressional OK to submit that application.
DOE Could Move Forward
That would seem unlikely, though, in the current politically charged atmosphere. The Yucca project, however, still has some strong supporters, particularly among power and transportation groups that have a sizable stake in the facility becoming operational.
In May, for example, a coalition of Yucca advocates
Some other power industry players, though, are sounding more receptive to considering storage options beyond the Yucca site.
"We're open, I think, to looking at various alternatives that might be able to move forward on a step- by- step basis," Edison Electric Institute President Tom Kuhn said in his first post- election press conference on Nov. 28th. "I think that there [are] going to have to be talks with the Republican and the Democratic side about some new ideas that are coming up here, too, to perhaps look at other interim sites for the nuclear waste."
But the head of the association of shareholder- owned electric companies didn't appear to have abandoned the Nevada project.
"I think it is extremely important for us to continue moving forward with Yucca Mountain," Kuhn said. ''Harry Reid and the Democrats have to be part of the solution. If they are going to support nuclear power, we've got to figure out ways that we continue to move forward on the nuclear waste issue.''
Moving forward quickly, of course, is an entirely different matter. Just when the Yucca operation actually opens – if ever – remains an imponderable question. What seems far more certain is that the Nevada project won't be going online any time in the foreseeable future.