In the first step toward permanently ending the controversial proposed Yucca Mountain, Nevada high-level radioactive waste dump, President Barack Obama’s first budget ends nearly all funding for the project -- fulfilling an Obama campaign promise.
Yes, elections do matter.
The decision to end nearly all funding for Yucca Mountain was announced quietly, tucked away at the very end of Obama’s initial FY 2010 budget statement for the Department of Energy: “The Yucca Mountain program will be scaled back to those costs necessary to answer inquiries from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, while the Administration devises a new strategy toward nuclear waste disposal.”
Full budget documents have not yet been released, so how much those “costs necessary…” will amount to isn’t yet known. But administration officials, including Energy Secretary Steven Chu, have made it clear that the Yucca Mountain project is finished. Under intense questioning from pro-nuclear Senators, Secretary Chu told the Senate Budget Committee March 11 that the Energy Department will set up a high-level panel to review U.S. radioactive waste policy and submit recommendations by the end of the year.
Some of the senators, such as New Hampshire Republican Judd Gregg, were less upset about the end of the Yucca Mountain project than at the signal ending the project says about the future of nuclear power. They were also concerned that in his quasi-State of the Union speech in February, Obama listed several energy technologies his administration will support; nuclear power was not among them.
Chu told the senators that nuclear power is “an essential part of our energy mix” and promised to accelerate the existing $18.5 Billion (14 Billion Euro) loan guarantee program for new reactor construction. But Chu didn’t promise to seek or support more loan guarantees. And it’s unclear how the existing program could be accelerated in practical terms, since no new reactors are even close to obtaining licenses from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), Yucca Mountain’s strongest opponent in Congress, introduced a bill on March 12 to establish an independent commission to re-evaluate U.S. radioactive waste policy. Reid’s bill, which at Monitor press time did not yet have a number, would set up a 9-person commission of which four members would be appointed by Democratic leadership, four by Republican leadership, with a chairman appointed jointly by Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). No member of the commission could currently work on the DOE’s high-level waste program, nor be employed by the government at any level —federal, state or local.
The commission would be required to issue a final report within 2 years on feasibility, cost, risks, legal, public health and environmental impacts of alternatives to Yucca Mountain and their impacts on local communities, including:
- Transferring responsibility for managing nuclear waste to a government corporation
- Cost sharing options between the Federal government and private industry for developing nuclear fuel management technologies
- Centralized interim storage facilities in communities willing to host them
- Research and development for advanced fuel cycle technologies
- Federal government taking title to nuclear waste
- Secure on-site storage of nuclear waste
- Permanent deep geologic storage for civilian and defense wastes
- Other management and technological approaches as the Commission may see fit
The idea for such a commission first surfaced in the early 1990s, by then-Senator Richard Bryan of Nevada and hundreds of environmental groups, which were already working to stop the Yucca Mountain project and expose its inability to meet waste disposal regulations.
Yucca Mountain was chosen as the only site being examined for a high-level waste dump by Congress in 1987. Even then, it was widely perceived as a political, rather than scientific decision. At the time, three sites were under consideration: Yucca, and sites in Texas and Washington state. But the huge Texas congressional delegation teamed up with the then-Speaker of the House, who was from Washington, and forced Yucca Mountain as the only possible site in what became known as the “screw Nevada” bill.
Twenty-two years and billions of dollars later, it appears as though Nevada may be getting the last laugh.
The largest concern for environmental groups now is who will make up the composition of the DOE panel and the independent commission —should Reid’s legislation be enacted— and what future radioactive waste policy for the U.S. may look like. A focus on reprocessing, for example, would be certain to arouse strong opposition from the environmental community, but it is increasingly common to hear nuclear industry spokespeople support reprocessing as their preferred option.