Soft sell

Obama tries a new approach to nuclear waste storage

A section of a main drift in the Yucca Mountain exploratory studies facility.

A section of a main drift in the Yucca Mountain exploratory studies facility.


The new Nevada Legislature has plenty on its plate this year, and its members probably would be happy not to have to deal again with the proposed dump for high level nuclear wastes at Yucca Mountain in Nye County. But the issue is repeatedly raising its head.

• President Obama’s administration announced on Jan. 11 that it will search for a new permanent site for nuclear waste storage with a target date of 2048, with temporary dumps slated for 2021 and 2025, essentially consigning Yucca to the past.

• Obama’s energy secretary, Steven Chu, resigned after four years during which he promoted nuclear power but torpedoed Yucca Mountain.

• In Idaho, a state commission said the state has an opportunity for “significant industrial opportunity” by helping the federal government with waste storage, a finding endorsed by Gov. Bruce Otter.

• In a lawsuit filed by states with nuclear power plants, utility regulators and Nye County in Nevada (which wants the economic activity the Yucca dump would bring), a court ruling is impending on whether the Obama administration can forced to move forward with development of the Yucca Mountain repository.

• Four leading U.S. Senators with nuclear power ties are working in an informal group on nuclear waste legislation.

• U.S. Rep. John Shimkus of Illinois, a state with 11 nuclear power facilities, said he will not—as chair of a key House subcommittee—allow the Senate group’s waste management bill to pass the House without a clause designating Yucca Mountain as a repository.

• Leading Eastern newspapers editorialized on Yucca.


The Obama plan, announced by Secretary Chu, implements the recommendations of the federal Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, which called for a “consent based” storage site, essentially proposing a less adversarial site search than that which produced Yucca.

Energy experts were not convinced. Steve Skutnik wrote on his energy industry-sponsored blog, “If one is to unilaterally dismantle nearly three decades of standing policy of nuclear waste disposal policy, a little more should be expected in terms of an alternative. The [Obama] report would not be it.”

The Senate group includes Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden (whose state has the highly polluted Hanford nuclear site on its border), Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander (whose state has three nuclear power facilities), California Sen. Diana Feinstein (four nuclear power facilities) as well as a senator without that kind of tie—Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski. But Murkowski receives heavy campaign funding from energy sources. The Senate group seems to want Yucca opened but is working on other alternatives because of the political realities.

Wyden joined the group when New Mexico’s Jeff Bingaman left the Senate. Under Bingaman, the group drafted a bill providing for a nuclear industry subsidy group called the Clean Energy Deployment Administration (CEDA) within the Department of Energy (DOE). The group was working within the “consent-based” approach recommended by President Obama’s commission. Bingaman wanted an application for a permanent waste dump before permitting any waste to be moved to temporary dumps, but that view may now leave with him. Wyden, who joined the Senate group after Bingaman’s departure and replaced him as chair, is amenable to shipping waste to temporary sites without a permanent site applicant in hand.

Rep. Shimkus, who chairs an energy and commerce subcommittee of the House Energy and Environment Committee, told the Hill, a congressional newspaper, “Under my dead body will anything be moved through our chamber without a Yucca component.” His state receives 48.2 percent of its power from nuclear and its waste was supposed to go to an Eastern repository. Federal promises were made in the 1970s that there would be two repositories, East and West, and that the West would not have to accept Eastern waste. Those promises were broken by Congress and President Reagan in 1987. The Obama plan calls for reviving the approach. Secretary Chu’s statement read:

“A consent-based siting process could result in more than one storage facility and/or repository, depending on the outcome of discussions with host communities. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 (NWPA) envisaged the need for multiple repositories as a matter of equity between regions. … As a starting place, this strategy is focused on just one of each facility.”

The Shimkus promise to block any nuclear waste bill that did not designate Yucca as the site for storage got heavy coverage from nuclear industry publications and sites like Power Engineering International magazine.


The Washington Post, in an editorial reprinted by the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Bangor Daily News, Charlotte News & Observer (all nuclear power markets), observed on Feb. 3:

“Every step, the administration insists, must be ‘consent-based,’ with localities accepting waste facilities in return for their economic benefits and perhaps some additional compensation. Congress tried forcing Nevada to take the country’s waste, the thinking goes; this time, the government should try recruitment rather than compulsion. We are skeptical that many localities would volunteer to host waste facilities, particularly the permanent repository, no matter the economic benefits. But perhaps the administration’s staged approach might be a way to convince communities, with each step building confidence that this material can be stored safely.”

The competing Washington Times in Washington, D.C., editorialized on Jan. 21, “At the core of the repository struggle is the fact that nuclear power is anathema to the trendy but expensive windmill and solar panel lobby that holds sway over the administration’s energy policy. Throwing obstacles into the path of safe disposal is a backhanded means of clouding the future of affordable nuclear energy. If the White House has its way, the repository will be sited in Never-Never Land.”

The Times, a Unification Church publication, described the Yucca dump as “already constructed and virtually ready for use,” which is not true (“Yucca tale flourishes,” RN&R, May 5, 2011). Only $8 billion in suitability study construction has occurred at the site, with about $100 billion in construction still to be done. The editorial also describes the site as “surrounded by the Nevada Test Site,” a claim often made by advocates of the dump to suggest that the land is already contaminated. In fact, the Yucca site is just inside the western border of the Test Site and is upwind from the area where bomb tests were conducted.

The Times editorial drew a letter to the editor from Joseph Strolin of Minden, former director of the Nevada Nuclear Projects Office: “If the scientific and fair process for selecting repository sites set up in the original Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 had been allowed to prevail in 1987, the country very likely would have a national nuclear waste repository today, albeit not at Yucca Mountain. The Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future studied the lessons to be learned from the failed Yucca Mountain program and produced a series of sound, workable recommendations that, if implemented, have the best chance of finally solving the country’s nuclear-waste problem.”