By Kennedy Maize
Yucca Mountain is stretched out on its deathbed. Earlier this month, the nuclear industry effectively agreed that the plan to bury spent nuclear reactor fuel under the Nevada mountain on federal government property is ready for political last rites.
At meetings with Wall Street analysts and state utility regulators in February, leaders of the Nuclear Energy Institute, the Washington lobbying group for the nuclear industry, began describing policy positions for the post-Yucca era, some two decades after an entirely-nasty political process in 1987 stuck a political bulls-eye on the federal government’s Nevada Test Site as a permanent nuclear waste dump. Led by then-chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.), it was known as the “Screw Nevada” bill. Nevada refused the honor over the years. It now appears that the state has won.
Marvin Fertel, the newly-installed NEI CEO, told Wall Street, as reported by Energy Daily, that the nuclear industry is ready to bow to “political reality,” and called for a blue-ribbon panel to look at Yucca Mountain alternatives. Those realities include an Obama administration that campaigned against the 27-year-old high level nuclear waste disposal plan; the fact that the Senate Democratic majority leader, Harry Reid of Searchlight, Nev., has made it clear he will use every power at his command (and they are considerable) to kill the project; and a U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission that, when a new chairman is named (most likely Reid favorite Commissioner Greg Jaczko, who was the Nevada senator’s science policy advisor before he was named to the NRC) and a new Democratic commissioner is appointed to an existing vacancy, will be stacked against the Nevada project.
Reid was jubilant. He told state lawmakers at a meeting of legislature this week, “Now, instead of fighting against the storm, Nevada has the wind at its back. Now with participation of delegation members and state constitutional officers, we should finally see the Yucca project come to a close.”
Fertel in New York was pushing long-term above-ground storage of spent fuel pending an analysis of how chemical reprocessing could be developed to safely recover uranium and plutonium from the fatigued fuel rods from conventional reactors. The Bush administration had proposed a “Global Nuclear Energy Program” that featured a yet-unproved reprocessing technology that would not be vulnerable to nuclear weapons proliferation. That plan, although a White House favorite, never gained political traction.
Fertel told the Wall Street analysts, “This integrated strategy – development of advanced fuel cycles and, eventually, disposal of the waste byproduct, when we know what it will be – makes good sense from every perspective. It reflects that we have ample time to redesign the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle in a way that makes sense for the long term.”
Fertel, a respected 40-year veteran of the nuclear lobbying trench wars in Washington and the states, suggested that either above-ground away-from-rector storage or on-site storage above ground, is “completely safe” as the industry and other interests seek a long-term solution. This is a 180-degree turn from the direction that the nuclear utility industry has been taking for the past two decades. The nuclear utilities have feverishly argued that they were running out of space and time for storing spent fuel on their reactor sites. They would be forced to shut down if Yucca Mountain wasn’t available.
Outside observers of those industry claims, including many at the NRC, never accepted the “sky-is-falling” bleatings. The NRC closely regulates on-site pool and dry-cask storage. The agency has never found any inherent safety problems, undercutting the utilities’ complaints. The utilities have built on-site “dry cask” storage, which the NRC has consistently pronounced safe.
At the same time Fertel was talking to Wall Street, Paul Genoa, NEI policy director, told the winter meeting of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners in Washington of NEI’s intention to seek a fall-back position on high-level waste storage. NARUC has invested a lot of its political and financial capital in supporting Yucca Mountain, so Genoa’s remarks must have come as a disappointment.
Genoa also floated Fertel’s bipartisan, blue-ribbon commission plan. “I don’t know how we turn back from a 26-27 year policy that is in law without doing some analysis and stakeholder effort to chart a new path forward.” His reference was to the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which established the framework that led to the Yucca Mountain project. In retrospect – and some claimed at the time – the 1982 law was fundamentally flawed.
According to a Reuters account, NEI envisions continuing activities at Yucca Mountain during the 12-24 month period it expects for the waste policy review. Whether the Obama administration or Reid would go along with that is unknown.
In a related development, the NRC on Feb. 17, much to the industry’s chagrin, approved a million-year standard for radiation dose rates from Yucca Mountain, should the site ever be approved for spent-fuel storage. Originally, the standard was that the facility would be built to contain significant radiation emissions for 10,000 years, which struck many observers as ridiculously high. But in 2004, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the 10,000 year standard as too lenient.
In response, EPA promulgated a two-tier standard, limiting the radiation dose to 15 millirem for the first 10,000 years after waste is buried and after that to l00 millirem to a million years.
Many in the nuclear industry and elsewhere view that standard as unachievable. The state of Nevada, which has been biting at the nuclear waste program like a terrier with a grip on a pants leg, says it views the million-year standard as lax, and will sue.
That suit might be moot, as the industry and the government moves away from Nevada storage toward a new, but still invisible, nuclear waste disposal strategy.
By Kennedy Maize