Yucca Mountain is Dead, So What

Yucca Mountain is Dead, So What

Alisa Opar
Published: 12/02/2009

Dry cask storage of nuclear waste
“Yucca Mountain, once chosen as the site for permanent disposal of nuclear waste, is dead.” That came from longtime nuclear power advocate and former senator Pete Dominicci at a speech at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., yesterday. “We need to be realistic here,” he said. “We need to move beyond Yucca, not only as a site, but as a concept. At some point America will need a permanent nuclear disposal site, but for the time-being, the temporary use of nuclear reactor sites seems safe. Leaving Yucca behind means turning to more productive policies.”

What, exactly, those policies might be remains uncertain. Soon after taking office, President Obama announced that he wouldn’t allow nuclear waste to be stored at Yucca Mountain. (Quick reminder: In 1987, Congress instructed the Energy Department to study only that spot, in Nevada, as a potential repository for nuclear waste. Then, in 2002, President Bush signed a resolution designating Yucca Mountain as the site. To date, about $9 billion has been spent on the project.) As Bloomberg reported in February, the Obama administration planned to devise a new strategy for dealing with the radioactive leftovers.

But, as the Congressional Budget Office’s Kim Cawley testified before the House Budget Committee in July, the “Department of Energy (DOE) has not yet disposed of any civilian nuclear waste and currently has no identifiable plan for handling that responsibility.” She also pointed out that “the federal government is more than 10 years behind schedule in its contractual obligations to remove and dispose of such waste.”

To fill the gap, nuclear power plants store spent fuel and high-level waste at reactors in special pools (which the Nuclear Regulatory Commission estimates will reach their limit by 2015) or, increasingly, dry casks. Moving ahead, there’s about $23 billion sitting in a fund utilities pay into that’s designated to cover storage costs. As Climate Wire’s Peter Behr notes (in a story re-posted by The New York Times), possible options the administration might consider include recycling the waste (a controversial approach) or burying it in an alternate geologic depository. As for the administration’s plans, Behr writes:

[Energy Secretary Steven] Chu has proposed creating a new panel to study options for permanent disposal or reprocessing of spent fuel. Sources familiar with the administration's plans say that former Indiana Rep. Lee Hamilton (D), president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft have been approached to lead the commission.

But as Domenici noted yesterday, the administration has not yet acted. "The blue-ribbon commission has been discussed but has no legitimate momentum. We must quickly make this commission a reality," he said.

It’s a good reminder that there’s no time to waste.