Waste not?

New developments strengthen Nevada’s hand on Yucca Mountain—for now, anyway

The north portal of the Yucca Mountain waste dump project—a busy place, for now.

The north portal of the Yucca Mountain waste dump project—a busy place, for now.

Photo By D. Brian Burghart

It’s turning into a bad summer for the proposed dump for high-level nuclear wastes at Yucca Mountain. Nevada supporters of the dump whose mantra has been, “It’s coming here no matter what we do,” now are faced with a series of setbacks to the dump that have thrown the entire project into question.

On June 11, the U.S. Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board (NWTRB) issued a report that implied political pressure for the construction of the dump was leading to flaws in its design because the project is being rushed. It pointed to a Belgian waste dump project and said that, because the Belgian project is not “schedule driven,” planners are able to make changes in it as they go along without having those changes characterized as “a failure or a roadblock.” The clear implication was that pressure by Congress and the nuclear power industry is impeding creation of a safe repository.

On June 24, a U.S. House committee approved legislation slashing funding for the dump to about a sixth of the amount requested by the Bush administration, from $880 million to $131 million. Fiscal conservatives who have supported the dump all along have backed off in the face of ongoing and gargantuan costs, estimated as high as $60 billion. The vote in the committee was not close, 29 to 19.

Two days later, the full House approved the measure after an effort to insert a $576 million Yucca appropriation collapsed.

The setback prompted an unusual response from a Republican senator, Pete Domenici—a tax hike. The New Mexican proposed a one-time surcharge on electricity users to raise another $440 million to keep development of the dump project going. Up to now, nuclear-power companies have been charged for project costs.

Also during June, nuclear engineer Paul Craig, a supporter of the Yucca dump who resigned from NWTRB to protest political pressure from the nuclear-power industry and Congress, published an article (http://www.ieer. org/sdafiles/12-3.pdf) contending that the “industry fails to understand that if Yucca Mountain isn’t done right, public trust in the entire industry will collapse.”

Then on July 9, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia issued a ruling in the lawsuit Nuclear Energy Institute vs. Environmental Protection Agency that further set back the Yucca project—though that was not at first clear. The confusion was sown by instant news services such as Bloomberg and the Associated Press, whose reports ran under headlines like “Nevada loses Yucca Mt. waste site appeal.” That set the tone for the first round of news coverage, with the AP story appearing in newspapers from Atlanta to Seattle.

So it was a surprise when Nevada Attorney General Brian Sandoval declared victory in sweeping language: “The court ruled in our favor on our most critical case. … Simply put, Yucca is stopped in its tracks because the court recognizes that the project isn’t rooted in sound science.”

As reporters had an opportunity to read the text of the decision (http://www.cadc.uscourts.gov/), more reflective stories appeared in such publications as the New York Times and the Washington Post under headlines like “Court deals blow to effort to bury nuclear waste in Nevada.” The Times’ initial story was lengthened from July 9 to July 10 as the shape of the court decision became clearer.

The court ruling came in an omnibus case combining a dozen lawsuits, including some to which Nevada was not a party. Of several issues in which Nevada had a stake, the court ruled in favor of the dump project in all but one, but that one is crucial.

The court said the project, in planning the dump for a 10,000-year life span, is not preparing for a long enough period and will have to rewrite that part of the plan. It did not specify an alternate figure, instead pointing to a National Academy of Sciences report that spoke of planning around possible leakage flows for a million years and setting a standard for the first 300,000, when leaks would be most severe. Under the law, the academy is the authority.

Some scientists said the U.S. Department of Energy now faces substantial obstacles in keeping the project going, particularly since DOE has previously conceded points helpful to opponents on issues involving length of safe storage.

Whether all this means the dump is dead, as state officials claim, is far from clear. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham immediately started talking about going to Congress to rewrite the law in order to moot the court opinion and go around the academy.

Indeed, the court opinion itself said that the Environmental Protection Agency must either require a longer life span for the project or “return to Congress and seek legislative authority to deviate” from the academy recommendations.

This is a time-tested means of fueling the Yucca project. In 1987, when three sites were being considered for the dump project, Congress wielded raw political power to halt the scientific process and order suitability study of Nevada alone.