Nuclear, Waste Management & Decommissioning

For Yucca Mountain, Less is More

Issue 5 and Volume 108.

Utilities in Finland recently announced plans to build an advanced design nuclear plant, and they expect it to be in operation in only five years. In contrast, a consortium of seven U.S. companies is preparing a proposal for a new nuclear plant in this country, and they think it will take at least five years just to get a license to construct it. All things nuclear proceed at an agonizingly slow pace in the U.S., and the project to develop the Yucca Mountain high-level nuclear waste repository is a prime example. There is reason for cautious optimism, however.

Congress approved the Yucca Mountain disposal site in 2002, and if all goes as planned, Yucca Mountain may be ready to accept high-level waste by 2010. This is a full 28 years after passage of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA), which began the process for establishing the waste repository.

Recently, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) revealed its proposed budget for fiscal 2005, including provisions for funding nuclear waste disposal activities. It is clear from the budget request that DOE anticipates performing significant licensing and construction work for the Yucca Mountain repository next year. Ironically, this means DOE’s 2005 budget request for the project has decreased from what the agency sought last year.

For 2005 DOE is requesting that Congress appropriate a total of $131 million for high-level nuclear waste disposal, but all of this is earmarked for disposing of waste from defense-related activities. This requested amount is only about a third of the $387 million budgeted for 2004. Yet DOE estimates that annual expenditures for waste disposal at Yucca Mountain will have to be about $1.3 billion if there is any chance to meet the 2010 schedule. The Department proposes to make up the shortfall by beginning to tap the Nuclear Waste Fund (NWF) for expenses attributable to the high-level waste from commercial nuclear power plants.

Since Congress passed the NWPA in the early years of the Reagan Administration, U.S. nuclear power plant operators have been paying into the NWF to cover the cost of disposing of the high-level radioactive waste they produce. Their contributions now add nearly $750 million to the fund every year, and the NWF is currently valued at more than $14 billion. According to the 1982 law, this money must be spent for licensing, constructing and operating the civilian waste disposal facility.

DOE has determined that the project has now moved past research and site selection and into the licensing phase, the first stage for which the NWF funds were designated by the law. The agency plans to submit a license application for the Yucca Mountain facility to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in December.

Even though DOE is not asking Congress to appropriate more money for the next step toward solving the civilian waste disposal problem, Congress still has a role to play. That is, the government has treated NWF dollars as just additional Federal funds available to be distributed each year for various national needs. Now, industry groups and other interested parties are petitioning Congress to set aside the NWF money in a separate account that will be fully available for its intended purpose, and that purpose only. This would add certainty to the Yucca Mountain funding, so the project schedule should not suffer further as a result of financial difficulties.

Nuclear Energy Institute vice president Angie Howard, testifying before the House Subcommittee on Energy and Air Quality on March 25, said, “Congress created the Nuclear Waste Fund based on the premise that electricity consumers who benefit from nuclear energy should pay for the used nuclear fuel disposal program. To effectively implement Congress’ intent, funds from the Nuclear Waste Fund should be available when justified and not conditioned on annual budget constraints.” She added, “The balance in the Nuclear Waste Fund is nearly $15 billion, and it must be available to the program if needed, with the appropriate congressional oversight.”

The Administration supports this view and has submitted a legislative proposal (H.R. 3981) to reclassify NWF as a separate account in the Federal treasury. This money would be dedicated to its intended purpose, and would not be subject to being taken for other Federal budget needs. This would be a big step forward in putting the Yucca Mountain project on a firm financial footing.

There are many twists and turns in the road ahead for Yucca Mountain, not the least of which are the many legal challenges still being pursued by the state of Nevada. As usual, the lawyers and politicians seem to have an endless array of tricks they can use to harass any nuclear project. However, if the administration and Congress succeed in ensuring that NWF money will be used only for its intended purpose, at least the financial weapon will have been wrested from the hands of the Yucca Mountain opponents.