The Obama administration's rushed efforts to shut down Yucca Mountain were strictly political and could set back the opening of a nuclear waste repository by more than 20 years, according to a new report by a federal watchdog.
The administration killed the repository program last year without citing technical or safety issues, and restarting the costly and time-consuming process of finding a permanent repository or an alternative solution could take decades and cost billions of additional dollars, the Government Accountability Office reported yesterday.
The Energy Department began pursuing a license for the Nevada site in 2008 but pulled support a year later when the Obama administration said it was not an attractive solution for storing nuclear waste in the United States. The administration then closed out funding for the site, eliminated jobs and contractor activities and disposed of Las Vegas properties associated with the project.
"Several DOE officials told us that they had never seen such a large program with so much pressure to close down so quickly," the report said in reference to the repository located about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
The Obama administration did not provide a technical or scientific basis for shutting down the site and failed to plan or identify risks associated with its hasty closure, which could hinder the Energy Department if the Nuclear Regulatory Commission or lawsuits prompt the agency to revive the project, the report said.
House Republicans who asked GAO to conduct the report in 2009 are pouncing on the study as proof the project should be revived, considering Yucca Mountain has already cost more than $12 billion, and a permanent repository would offer a nationwide solution for more than 65,000 metric tons of spent fuel currently being stored near reactors in 33 states, an amount expected to double by 2055.
Republicans say those concerns are only magnified by the disaster in Japan, where spent fuel pools and reactors at its Fukushima Daiichi plant were damaged by a magnitude 9 earthquake and tsunami in March.
"The ongoing situation in Japan further underscores that our national security demands a coherent nuclear policy to safely and permanently store spent nuclear fuel," said House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) in a statement issued yesterday. "It is alarming for this administration to discard 30 years of research and billions of taxpayer dollars spent, not for technical or safety reasons, but rather to satisfy temporary political calculations."
GAO's study found that Energy Secretary Steven Chu's decision to terminate the Yucca Mountain repository program was made for policy reasons, not technical or safety reasons, and officials speaking for Chu in 2010 did not cite any technical concerns or safety issues related to the Yucca Mountain site.
The Energy Department moved to pull its application to develop the site from NRC last year, but the commission's Atomic Safety Licensing Board ruled in June that the government could not pull the application unless Congress directed otherwise.
DOE appealed the board's decision to the full NRC panel, and the agency is in the process of making a recommendation on whether or not the government can pull its application. Under NRC procedures, the results of a vote are not made public until staff guidance is developed based on the votes and the commission passes a final order.
When DOE moved to shutter the project last year, Chu did not say Yucca Mountain was unsafe or that there were flaws in the license application, according to the report, but said the site was not a workable option and that alternatives should be found.
Instead, the administration created a presidentially appointed blue ribbon commission to review alternatives for storing, processing and disposing of nuclear waste but directed the panel not to review individual sites, including Yucca Mountain. The commission is slated to produce its first draft report this summer.
If NRC or the courts force the project to advance, DOE has already lost staff expertise, properties and contractor activities associated with the site, the study says, and many important procedures, including NRC's license review process, have already been closed out.
"Some of the officials we spoke with estimated that the termination of Yucca Mountain could set back the opening of a new geologic repository by at least 20 years and cost billions of dollars," the report said, adding that some stakeholders referred to the termination as "kicking the can down the road."
DOE sharply criticized the report's findings in a 14-page letter attached to the GAO study, saying it relies on "misapprehensions of fact."
The agency stated that it is possible the blue ribbon commission will find a national solution for storing nuclear waste in the United States, such as a centralized interim storage facility, which could be opened before the Nevada site is developed, especially if that site garners more public acceptance and avoids costly delays.
But even if such a project garners public acceptance and avoids cost delays, the GAO report says that an interim storage facility initiated in 2011 would take until 2045 to permit, license and review.
Political anger is also brewing over when NRC will issue a policy decision on whether the commission will uphold NRC's Atomic Safety and Licensing Board's decision that the government cannot pull its application for Yucca Mountain.
House lawmakers are investigating whether NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko stalled the decision to politically protect his former boss, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), a leading opponent of the project(Greenwire, May 4).
Republicans have also accused the chairman of stalling the vote until summer, when Republican NRC Commissioner William Ostendorff's term expires, which would open a potential spot for a commissioner who opposes the Yucca project. Ostendorff has been nominated for another five-year term, which requires Senate confirmation. If he is not reconfirmed, President Obama can nominate a replacement.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) today admonished Democrats for holding up the nomination process, saying Ostendorff is one of the only commissioners with hands-on experience operating a nuclear reactor.
"This morning I call on those who continue to hold up this nomination to stop playing games with it and reconfirm this man to this post," McConnell said in a speech at the Nuclear Energy Assembly in Washington.