Former Sen. Pete Domenici, a longtime advocate of nuclear power, said yesterday that it is time to give up attempts to create a permanent disposal site for the nation's nuclear waste fuel at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. He urged the Obama administration to move ahead with a planned blue-ribbon commission to find an alternative.
"We need to be realistic here," the former New Mexico Republican legislator said in a speech in Washington. "Yucca Mountain, once chosen as the site for permanent disposal of nuclear waste, is dead."
President Obama has cut off Energy Department funding for the Yucca Mountain project, following through on a campaign commitment to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the project's powerful and implacable opponent.
DOE declined to comment last week on reports that the department would withdraw the project's permit application at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. But DOE spokeswoman Stephanie Mueller said that "the president and Secretary [Steven] Chu have made it clear that nuclear waste storage at Yucca Mountain is not an option, period."
"Yucca Mountain is political. Everybody knows that," Domenici said in an interview after the speech. "The truth of the matter is, the world has passed by the idea of putting spent fuel rods -- as hot as they come out of the reactor -- underground in perpetuity."
Chu has proposed creating a new panel to study options for permanent disposal or reprocessing of spent fuel. Sources familiar with the administration's plans say that former Indiana Rep. Lee Hamilton (D), president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft have been approached to lead the commission.
But as Domenici noted yesterday, the administration has not yet acted. "The blue-ribbon commission has been discussed but has no legitimate momentum. We must quickly make this commission a reality," he said.
A $23 billion question
The Energy Department agreed in 1982 to store spent civilian reactor fuel and high-level radioactive wastes beginning in 1998, and in 1983, utilities began paying into a fund to cover storage costs. The fund has a balance of $23 billion currently, based on annual payments by utilities of $750 million, plus interest earnings, minus design work on the Yucca Mountain facility and other costs.
But to date, DOE has not taken on any civilian nuclear wastes "and currently has no identifiable plan for handling that responsibility," said Kim Cawley of the Congressional Budget Office, in testimony to the House Budget Committee in July.
The spent fuel is stored instead at reactor sites, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has concluded there is space to continue on-site storage safely for at least the balance of this century.
Many nuclear power plant operators have sued the Energy Department for breach of contract over the waste storage issue, however. In response to the suits, the federal government has paid utilities more than $565 million to cover the utilities' on-site fuel storage costs, and that number could rise to $12 billion by 2020, according to DOE -- assuming the government has created a storage option by then, Cawley said.
"A legislative solution would be preferable to the current drain on the resources of the courts and the Department of Justice caused by the seemingly endless litigation," Deputy Assistant Attorney General Michael Hertz told the committee at the same hearing.
Recycling pushed as a waste-reducing option
Domenici said the $23 billion in the waste fund should be used to fund a pilot project on recycling spent fuel, which could substantially reduce the amount of storage space required. Opponents of reprocessing say it would increase the risk that radioactive materials could fall into terrorists' hands.
Other countries are proceeding with new nuclear reactors, he continued, urging that the United States take leadership in developing strategies for waste treatment that effectively manage the threat of proliferation of nuclear materials for weapons. "The United States can acknowledge reality, or we can continue to bury our head in the sand while nuclear waste, and nuclear proliferation dangers, build up throughout the world."
He praised the recent commitment by the United Arab Emirates to rely on international nuclear fuel suppliers as it develops nuclear power, pledging to return spent fuel to the United Kingdom and France and to refrain from recycling its own fuel. "This is a model that, with modifications, may work in future agreements with other nations," he noted.
He added that this model requires adequate international infrastructure to responsibly manage used fuel through arrangements for take-back, treatment, recycling and storage of spent fuel. "America's present domestic policy is out of step with our demonstrated technology and scientific abilities," he said.
Another potential approach could be based on the Waste Isolation Pilot Project in New Mexico, Domenici said. It stores less toxic nuclear wastes in salt deposits 3,500 feet underground.
Domenici also criticized the Energy Department for continued delay in carrying out an $18.5 billion loan guarantee program for new nuclear reactors that was authorized by Congress in 2005.
Administration officials are still debating the amount of up-front payments that reactor developers would have to pay to obtain the guarantees, based on how the government assesses the risk of loan defaults if projects cannot be completed.
"I find it especially perplexing that the Department of Energy and the Office of Management and Budget are still negotiating the level of the credit risk fee," he said. "If the fee is set too high, we will never build the next generation of nuclear plants," he added.
Domenici said a fee of 1 percent of the guaranteed loan would be adequate. The Union of Concerned Scientists and other nuclear power critics and skeptics say that the costs of building new reactors are rising, threatening successful project completion, and the risk fee should be set substantially higher.