Yucca Mountain is Dead and Gone

By Kennedy Maize

I come not to praise Yucca Mountain as a final repository for spent nuclear fuel, but to bury it. The lid on the Yucca coffin has long been in place, but now the Obama administration is  nailing it down, according to a report in The Energy Daily. That’s good news.

The newsletter account says that the Department of Energy in December will abandon its license application at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission for the Nevada waste dump. Energy Daily says it has obtained documents outlining the Obama administration’s plan to sink Yucca Mountain for good. I have no reason to challenge that reporting.

Energy Daily reports that the Yucca obituary will come in DOE’s fiscal year 2011 budget proposal, which the administration will submit to Congress in early 2010. The budget request, according to the report, will say, “All license defense activities will be terminated in December 2009.”

It’s about time. The choice of Yucca Mountain was the result of a rigged, political process that could not help but come up with a bogus site for spent nuclear fuel. I’ve been arguing this case since Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982.

The act, concocted by the late Rep. Morris Udall (D-Ariz.), chairman of the House Interior and Insular Affairs Committee, and Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.,) chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, was built on a familiar but unsustainable premise: let’s put lots of regions at risk, and they will have to come up with a compromise. So the bill established a goal of deep geological storage of “high level” waste (initially spent nuclear fuel and later some bomb wastes), and set up a competition among various geological areas of the country for the storage.

There was salt, basalt, tuff, and granite. There would be two rounds of site characterization, carried out by the staff at DOE. Udall’s mantra was “spread the pain.” The nuclear waste program would be financed by a special tax on atomic generation.

The Udall bill also set up a system where the governor of a state with a candidate for the repository could veto the selection, with Congress able to override the veto. It was a recipe for the staggering follies of the next 27 years.

As J. Samuel Walker, the official historian of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, noted in his 2009 book The Road to Yucca Mountain, “It was soon clear that the law did not provide the solution that optimists had predicted. DOE, in accordance with the requirements of the law, conducted environmental evaluations of possible disposal sites and selected five leading candidates: salt deposits in Mississippi, Texas, and Utah, basalt formations at Hanford [Washington], and tuff rock in Nevada.”

In May 1986, then Energy Secretary John Herrington, fearing losses in the upcoming national elections, particularly in the second-round candidate states, mostly in New England, suspended the second round of site characterizations. Herrington limited the sites to Texas, Hanford, and Yucca Mountain, in Nevada. He essentially signed a death sentence for the 1982 law.

Enter influential journalist Luther Carter of Science magazine, who suggested short-stopping the whole convoluted process and mandating storage at Yucca Mountain, where Uncle Sam already owned the land and the geology looked promising. Bennett Johnston, a nuclear advocate who had already inserted legislative language protecting Louisiana salt deposits against being candidates for nuclear waste storage, jumped on Carter’s proposal.

In 1987, Johnson sponsored the what the little-known, junior Democratic member of the U.S. Senate from Nevada, Harry Reid, dubbed the “Screw Nevada” bill. Congress passed the legislation, which stopped further site studies and pointed the government’s finger, you can guess which one, at Yucca Mountain.

But over the next 20 years, Nevada and other opponents of siting at Yucca Mountain were able to play a brilliant game of “stall ball,” dragging out the process with well-founded technical and political objections to the Nevada site. During the Clinton administration, the road to Yucca Mountain got clogged with political obstacles and technical objections. It didn’t get smoother during the George W. Bush years.

Who knew that Harry Reid would become a Democratic colossus? A two-term, back-bench member of the U.S. House, in 1986 Reid won election to the Senate against a former Democratic House member Jim Santini, turned Republican. Reid easily won reelection in 1992, and narrowly escaped a Republican landslide in 1998.

After serving as a successful Senate Democratic whip (vote counter and organizer) for several years, in 2005 Reid succeeded South Dakota Democratic Sen. Tom Daschle, who was defeated in 2004, as Democratic leader. When the Democrats recaptured the U.S. Senate in 2006, Reid became Senate majority leader. All the while, he made his opposition to Yucca Mountain a key to his home-state appeal.

When President Obama was running for the White House in 2008, he made it clear that he would support Reid on killing Yucca Mountain. Now, the administration has paid off on its promise.

What comes next? Probably a lot of dithering and feckless hand-wringing. The Bush administration understood that Yucca was dead political meat and was looking at some sort of allegedly-benign fuel reprocessing as the waste solution. That didn’t work.

Look for the Obama administration to appoint a “blue ribbon” panel of experts to come up with a proposal in a couple of years. In the meantime, spent nuclear fuel will remain at reactor sites. That’s not a bad outcome, as I’ve argued for more than a decade. The NRC says the fuel is safe. What else is required?

I’ve been writing variants of this screed for more than two decades. I hope this is the last I have to write about nuclear waste at least until I get into the retirement home.