Nuclear waste dump is mired in inertia

June 14, 2011

In the desert of Nevada, a hundred miles from Las Vegas, engineers have drilled a tunnel through the heart of Yucca Mountain. The hole is 25 feet wide and five miles long. It’s dark in there. The light bulbs have been removed. The ventilation has been turned off. There’s nothing inside but some rusting rails that were supposed to carry 70,000 tons of nuclear waste to a permanent grave.

Outside, the gates are locked. When three members of Congress visited in March, the federal government spent $15,000 just to reopen the place for a few hours.

Yucca Mountain is a case study in government dysfunction and bureaucratic inertia. The project dates back three decades. It has not solved the problem of nuclear waste but has succeeded in keeping fully employed large numbers of litigators.

The mountain dump was a project that came to life slowly and tortuously and is in the process of dying in a similar fashion. Proponents haven’t given up on it, and it could yet be resuscitated by the courts. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit is expected to issue a ruling any day now on a lawsuit, filed by the states of Washington and South Carolina, among other plaintiffs, that contends that the Obama administration lacked authority to kill the congressionally mandated program.

But as it now stands, the Yucca Mountain tunnel is likely to turn into a $15 billion Hole to Nowhere.

“This is Alice in Wonderland. Only in Washington, D.C., could something like this happen,” said Ed Davis, a nuclear industry consultant and former president of the American Nuclear Energy Council.

The controversy has generated a cloud of recrimination that expands daily. On Tuesday, a House subcommittee heard the inspector general of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission testify about the results of a probe into the actions of NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko, whom Republican lawmakers have accused of illegal machinations to shut down the mountain depository.

“There is outright malfeasance,” the subcommittee’s chairman, Rep. John Shimkus (R.-Ill), said as he called the hearing to order. “The report is replete with instances of Chairman Jaczko deliberately misleading both his fellow commissioners and senior NRC staff.”

The Republicans didn’t quite get what they wanted out of the hearing Tuesday — the inspector general, Hubert Bell, repeatedly refused to characterize Jaczko’s behavior as illegal, but he did paint an unflattering picture of a sharp-elbowed and highly political NRC chairman.

The pro-Yucca forces see this multi-decade saga as the ultimate case of not-in-my-back-yard politics. The anti-Yucca camp argues that the mountain is not geologically sound as a toxic waste dump, that it’s too wet for long-term storage of containers that can corrode, and too vulnerable to earthquakes.

Just about everyone agrees that, viewed broadly, the Yucca story has been an epic fiasco. A report released in April by the Government Accountability Office estimates that $15 billion has been spent on the attempt to find, and build, a place to put the spent nuclear fuel.

“Everybody in the government seems to have ended up with egg on their face,” said Yucca opponent Victor Gilinsky, a former NRC commissioner and former consultant to the state of Nevada.

Hoping for a renaissance

The nuclear energy industry in recent years has been hoping for a renaissance after several moribund decades. Energy from fission produces no carbon emissions, an attractive feature in an era in which scientists say the burning of fossil fuel is driving perilous levels of climate change. But the waste issue has dogged the nuclear industry for decades.

There are currently 75 U.S. power plant sites, scattered among 33 states, where nuclear fuel is kept in temporary storage, typically in pools of water that cool radioactive material. Such a storage system is not foolproof, as seen in the recent accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan, where spent fuel pools allowed radiation to leak into the environment.

The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, passed by Congress and signed into law by President Ronald Reagan the following year, compelled the Department of Energy to search for a deep geological repository among potential sites both east and west of the Mississippi.

Powerful politicians found ways to leverage their states off the list of candidate sites. Gone as potential locations, for example, were the salt domes beneath Texas and Louisiana, or the granite formations of New Hampshire. Congress eventually decided that the only place suitable was Nevada, in the desert terrain not far from land that had already been irradiated in above-ground atomic weapon tests in the 1950s. In 1987, in what is commonly known as the “Screw-Nevada Bill,” Congress designated Yucca Mountain as the focus of the program.

Utility customers across the country pay a slight surcharge on their monthly bills to fund the waste disposal project — money sitting in a $24 billion account. But Nevada politicians, including Sen. Harry M. Reid, now the Senate majority leader, fought the project. The mountain turned out to be wetter than expected. Scientists discovered that plutonium from the atomic bomb tests had migrated into the groundwater, indicating that the mountain was not as geologically isolated as hoped.

Obama’s vow

When Barack Obama ran for president, and sought the five electoral votes of the swing state of Nevada, he vowed to kill Yucca. In early 2009, Steven Chu, Obama’s energy secretary, announced that his department did not feel that Yucca Mountain was a workable option.

Department of Energy spokeswoman Stephanie Mueller said Monday: “Rather than spend billions of dollars more on a project that faced such doubtful prospects of ever being built, we think the responsible thing to do is to move on to a better solution for the long-term management of our nuclear waste that meets the country’s needs and has the opportunity to obtain the necessary public acceptance.”

The April GAO report details a lurching, haphazard shutdown of the huge project starting in February 2010. The Department of Energy terminated the jobs of several thousand federal workers and contractors while hastily abandoning offices in Las Vegas and transferring dozens of truckloads of furniture, computers and other equipment to other department sites and local schools.

Department officials told the GAO that “they did not have a good inventory of property at Yucca Mountain” and that some items might have been stolen. Department workers found broken locks at the site on three occasions. They had no idea what the burglars might have taken.

Last fall, NRC Chairman Jaczko, a former adviser to Reid who was elevated to his post by Obama, ordered the staff to wind down a two-year-old technical review of the Yucca Mountain project. But the inspector general found that Jaczko was “not forthcoming” with some fellow commissioners and that they did not fully grasp that his administrative actions were a death knell for Yucca. Bell’s report also described Jaczko as temperamental.

Jaczko, while welcoming the report’s conclusion that he didn’t break the law, pushed back against the suggestion that he’s a hothead. “I’m a very passionate guy and a very intense guy — I hold people accountable,” he said. “I am very comfortable with my leadership and what I’ve done with the agency.”

The next turn of events will likely take place in the courts. On March 22, the federal appeals court heard oral arguments on a consolidated set of Yucca-related lawsuits against the administration and/or the NRC. Barry Hartman, attorney for three of the plaintiffs, said a clear-cut victory in court could force the administration to revive Yucca.

“If the administration’s position stands, the administration has flushed a lot of money down the tubes,” Hartman said.

With Yucca Mountain closed, the Obama administration has resorted to the classic maneuver for difficult problems: It has assigned the nuclear waste dilemma to a “blue-ribbon commission” led by gray-haired Washington luminaries (Lee Hamilton, Brent Scowcroft).

In May, the “Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future” made a draft recommendation for a medium-term solution: aboveground storage of nuclear fuel in concrete containers, or “dry-cask storage.”

But the commission also called for the country to develop “expeditiously” a permanent storage site in one or more “deep geological facilities.”

It did not specify where such a hole should be.

Staff writer Steven Mufson contributed to this report.

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
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