No Clear Alternative To Nevada Nuclear Dump: GAO

By Dietrich Knauth

Law360, New York (May 10, 2011, 7:48 PM EDT) — By abandoning a long-planned nuclear waste dump in Nevada without a clear alternative, the U.S. Department of Energy may have set back efforts to find a permanent site for spent nuclear fuel by 20 years, the U.S. Government Accountability Office said Tuesday.

In its report, the GAO said social and political opposition were the biggest obstacles to completing a permanent repository, and recommended greater continuity of leadership and funding for a national waste management strategy, potentially through an organization independent of the DOE.

A permanent disposal site for highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel had been planned at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain since 1987, and the DOE’s abandonment of the project in 2010 forced it to start from scratch, likely causing decades of delays and costing billions of dollars, the GAO said.

“Nuclear waste disposal is extremely controversial, and no strategy can guarantee success.” the report said. “However, given the past and the consequences of failure, many knowledgeable sources suggested that the task may require a more predictable funding mechanism and more independence than DOE is able to provide.”

“Terminating the Yucca Mountain repository program could bring benefits, such as allowing DOE to search for a more acceptable alternative, which could help avoid the costly delays experienced by Yucca Mountain,” the GAO said. “However, there is no guarantee that a more acceptable or less costly alternative will be identified.”

The DOE said in a letter responding to the report that it had acted responsibly, and that the GAO wrongly assumed that any replacement for Yucca Mountain would take longer to complete.

The spent nuclear fuel is radioactive enough to kill a person within minutes of direct exposure, and remains dangerous to human health for tens of thousands of years, the GAO report said. The U.S. currently stores more than 65,000 metric tons of spent fuel in pools of water and on site, in pools, or in dry casks — steel cannisters encased inside concrete casks — at nuclear reactors around the nation.

That amount of spent fuel could fill a football field nearly 15 feet deep, and the amount of spent nuclear fuel in the U.S. is expected to double by 2055, according to the GAO.

The recent nuclear crisis in Japan was caused, in part, when an earthquake and tsunami damaged the pools used to store spent nuclear fuel, allowing potentially lethal radiation to leak into the environment.

“The ongoing situation in Japan further underscores that our national security demands a coherent nuclear policy to safely and permanently store spent nuclear fuel,” said Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “Our nuclear future requires visionary leadership as we seek a long-term solution to our spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste.”

The GAO criticized the DOE’s rapid shutdown of the Yucca Mountain program, saying the agency’s termination of employees and disposal of related property and equipment would make it difficult to restart the program, if it is ordered to do so by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission or courts.

“It took DOE years to recruit and train the proper mix of scientists and engineers — from diverse disciplines such as hydrology, geology and mathematics — to work on the license application,” the GAO said.

The department terminated the program to look for better solutions that could achieve greater public support, but did not identify any alternatives, the GAO said. The department instead created a blue ribbon commission to evaluate and recommend alternatives. The commission is due to report in January.

The GAO said that finding a more politically acceptable location would be difficult, as no state has volunteered to take spent nuclear fuels, and the abrupt cancelation of the Yucca Mountain project had damaged the DOE’s already weak credibility on the issue.

The DOE’s Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management suffered from a fluctuating budget and “a revolving door style of management,” with 17 different directors in 27 years, that hurt its ability to negotiate with local and state governments, according to the report.

The Yucca Mountain project has already cost nearly $15 billion, and would have cost an additional $41 billion to $67 billion more to complete, the GAO said. About $9 billion of the money spent came from the the Nuclear Waste Fund, which draws money from taxes on the selling of nuclear power. Some industry players have called for suspension of payments into the NWF, saying their customers shouldn’t pay for a repository that won’t be built, according to the GAO.

No nation has built a permanent repository for spent nuclear fuel or high-level radioactive waste, the GAO said.

Published by Law360