Nuclear, Reactors, Waste Management & Decommissioning

Yucca Mountain should restart

The U.S. Department of Energy failed to cite technical or safety issues when it ended the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository and should make preliminary plans to restart the project, according to a new report published by the Government Accountability Office.

Investigators said that stopping the project could prolong the need for interim spent nuclear fuel storage at reactor sites. The government already has spent $15 billion toward building the repository.

“There is no guarantee that a more acceptable or less costly alternative will be identified,” the report said, referring to the efforts of the Blue Ribbon Commission formed by Energy Secretary Steven Chu to develop other strategies for nuclear waste. That panel is due to issue a draft report in July, followed by final recommendations in early 2012.

Most organizations interviewed for the report said overcoming social and political opposition to a repository and having consistent policy, funding and leadership in place are needed to develop a future waste management strategy.

The nation’s 104 operating power reactors create about 2,000 tons of nuclear waste each year. That is in addition to 70,000 tons of waste stored mostly at those power plants. Much of that material is kept in concrete-lined pools, where water keeps the fuel rods cool. Above-ground cask storage systems can also be built.

In 2002, Congress approved Yucca Mountain, Nev., as the site of a national nuclear waste repository. The project was canceled under an Obama administration directive, which led to a number of lawsuits.

GAO recommended that Energy Secretary Chu further explore the risks that terminating Yucca Mountain could pose for future radioactive materials management and develop a preliminary plan to restart the project in case DOE is required to do so.

In a 14-page response from Peter Lyons, the acting assistant secretary for nuclear energy, DOE said the report’s conclusions were based on mistaken assumptions that the Yucca Mountain repository would have opened in the first place. He said any alternative would take longer to implement and increase spent fuel storage costs beyond what those costs would have been for Yucca Mountain.

“To the contrary,” Lyons wrote, “there was considerable uncertainty whether the Yucca Mountain repository would ever have opened, let alone when. Among other things, the project would have required new legislation, an NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Commission) license and many additional permits.”

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