Yucca Mountain Delays Could Cost U.S. Taxpayers Billions

By Brian Hansen

WASHINGTON, DC, September 28, 2000 (ENS) - American taxpayers could be on the hook for some $80 billion in damages because of the U.S. Energy Department's contractual failure to dispose of the nation's ever growing piles of spent nuclear fuel. Republican lawmakers and nuclear power industry representatives issued the warning today during a sometimes combative Senate committee hearing.

The hearing, convened by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, came in the wake of a decision handed down by last month by the U.S. Federal Circuit Court of Appeals.

The court decision clears the way for nuclear utilities to sue the U.S. government under the provisions of the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which required the Department of Energy to have a geologic repository in place to receive spent nuclear fuel by January of 1998.


Aerial view of Yucca Mountain, Nevada (Photo courtesy The Study Committee)
No such repository has yet been constructed, though the Department of Energy (DOE) is currently considering a site in western Nevada known as Yucca Mountain.

But until Yucca Mountain or another suitable facility is open for business, thousands of tons of spent nuclear fuel will continue to pile up at power companies and temporary DOE storage sites around the country, lamented Senator Frank Murkowski, an Alaska Republican who chairs the Energy and Natural Resources panel.

"This country is choking on its own nuclear waste," Murkowski said. "If we don't solve the problem of our spent nuclear fuel soon, the American taxpayer will bear the costs of the financial liability."


Alaska Senator Frank Murkowski (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)
That liability - which was the basis of the court decision handed down last month - is associated with the monies that the DOE has long collected from the nuclear utilities and their subscribers.

The fees are placed in a special Nuclear Waste Fund that is intended to fund the construction of a permanent waste repository. To date, more than $17 billion in fees and interests have been paid into the fund.

The utilities maintain that those fees should be returned to them because a permanent waste repository has not yet been built. They also argue that the government should reimburse them for the tens of billions of dollars in expenses they continue to incur from having to store their wastes on site.

PECO Energy, a Pennsylvania based nuclear utility, reached a settlement agreement with the DOE in July. The first such agreement, the settlement applies only to PECO's Peach Bottom Plant but is intended to be a framework that can be applied to other nuclear power plants. Negotiations for the other plants will be conducted on a plant-by-plant basis.


Peach Bottom Unit #2 nuclear power plant (Photo courtesy Nuclear Regulatory Commission)
The settlement, which will reduce PECO's fees by some $80 million over the next ten years, amounts to a $55 million shortfall for the DOE's Nuclear Waste Fund.

That is very troubling for Murkowski, who wants the fund to be available for construction expenses at Yucca Mountain. Murkowski directed his displeasure with the PECO deal at Dr. Ivan Itkin, director of the Department of Energy's Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management.

"You've jeopardized your construction fund," Murkowski thundered at Itkin. "That amount of revenue will not be available to the government to finish Yucca Mountain."

Itkin did his best to shrug off Murkowski's attacks, emphasizing that the key to moving ahead with the project is to ensure that Congress fully funds the DOE's budget proposal for the coming fiscal year.

The DOE has requested $437.5 million to complete the studies it says it needs to make an informed policy decision on the Yucca Mountain project, which is significantly more than the $351 million currently authorized by the Senate appropriations bill.

"At the lower funding level ... we will face significant delays in preparing a site recommendation," said Itkin. "A decision recommending the site could slip for up to a year, and submittal of a license application could slip several years."

Those delays would in turn push back the 2110 target date for accepting nuclear waste at the facility, Itkin said.


Technicians test the suitability of Yucca Mountain to contain the radiation from thousands of tons of high level nuclear waste. (Photo courtesy Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management (OCWM))
Murkowski called that an unacceptable result, noting that further delays in completing the Yucca Mountain project would only increase the substantial financial liabilities that the government has already incurred to the nuclear utility industry.

However, the liabilities that would stem from further delays in the Yucca Mountain approval process would also have environmental repercussions, Murkowski said. If more nuclear plants are forced to shut down because they have nowhere to store their spent fuel, more fossil fuel fired power plants would have to be built in order to make up for the loss in electricity generation, Murkowski said.

"I don't know if the [Clinton] administration has gotten that message, Murkowski said. "It suggests to me that their decisions are being driven solely by an environmental concerns, and we have to have a balance."

The Energy Secretary will decide next year whether to recommend Yucca Mountain to President Clinton as the site for the permanent geological repository. Yucca Mountain is the only site under consideration by the DOE, which has spent some $7 billion on scientific studies at the site.


Deep inside Yucca Mountain, scientists inject a mixture of compressed air and a tracer gas into a borehole. Later, they recover the gases from a separate borehole. By knowing the distance between the boreholes and the travel time for the gas, they determine how fast fluids and gases move through the rock. (Photo courtesy OCWM)
Environmentalists have long maintained that the site would be unsuitable as a geologic repository, arguing that deadly radioactive contaminants would eventually leach out into groundwater flowing under the site.

Murkowski laid blame for the Yucca Mountain delays largely on the doorstep of President Bill Clinton, who earlier this year vetoed a bill that was designed to expedite the shipment of nuclear waste to the Nevada desert site.

Murkowski tried frantically to muster enough votes to override the President's veto, but the effort fell one vote short.

Environmentalists worked hard to defeat the bill, which they derisively dubbed "Mobile Chernobyl." The moniker referred to the Russian nuclear reactor that exploded in 1986 and sent a plume of radioactive particles around the world.

But regardless of the suitability of the site, the transportation program that would be needed to ship wastes to the site would also pose grave risks, activists and scientists note. According to the DOE's current plan, thousands of shipments of nuclear waste would roll down roadways in 43 states. Some 50 million people live within half a mile of the projected routes.

Environmentalists vow to again fight the "Mobile Chernobyl" proposal when it is raised again in Congress.


Nevada Governor Ken Guinn (Photo courtesy Office of the Governor)
But meanwhile, another potential roadblock to the Yucca Mountain project popped up last week, when Nevada Governor Ken Guinn announced that he will seek to pass a state law prohibiting the importation of water into Nevada for the purpose of building the nuclear waste repository.

A significant amount of water would be needed at the site for road building and dust suppression purposes as well as for drinking water.

"We will do everything within our means to see that the Yucca Mountain project dies of thirst," Guinn told the "Las Vegas Review-Journal" newspaper. "My message to the Department of Energy is clear. As long as I'm governor, I will explore every option and use every tool at my disposal to prevent a single drop of Nevada's water being used to create a nuclear waste dumping ground in our state."

Guinn said that a fine of $1 million per gallon of water would be a sufficient deterrent to the DOE.