Yucca Mountain: Movement Forward/Movement Backward

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Publication date: 
30 April 2008

Two hearings before the House and Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittees this month offered little optimism about the timely opening of the Yucca Mountain Repository for nuclear waste.  Although almost $10 billion has been spent on the Yucca Mountain program, the most optimistic date for the opening of this proposed repository in Nevada has again been delayed.

There are two major reasons for the continuing delay: vociferous state opposition to the repository, and a lack of  management and construction funding.  As outlined by Edward Sproat, Director of the DOE Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, neither problem seems close to resolution.

There is some progress to report. By June 30 of this year, Sproat testified, the Department of Energy will submit an 8,000 page license application for the construction of the Yucca Mountain to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Despite this major accomplishment, Sproat told House and Senate appropriators that the $108 million reduction in this year's budget for his Office from the Administration's request has made "the best achievable date" of March 2017 for the repository's opening "no longer achievable." In a hearing last year, as well as at the two hearings this month, Sproat said the only way that the repository can be constructed is by allowing access to the funding mechanism established by the Nuclear Waste Policy Act.  Approximately $750 million in fees are paid every year by electric utilities.  To construct the repository and the rail transportation system to the site, DOE needs access to this funding stream, as well as to accumulated fees and interest in the Nuclear Waste Fund.  DOE estimates that it would require between $1.2 billion and $1.9 billion a year.  Congress must pass legislation allowing this fund to be tapped.  DOE has come to the conclusion that Congress is "very, very unlikely," in Sproat's words, to provide the money necessary to construct the repository before the NRC gives its authorization to do so, which is anticipated to be in 2011 or 2012.

DOE now projects annual flat program funding for the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management in the range of $400 to $500 million for the next three or four years.  For FY 2009, the $495 million that Sproat's office has requested will be used in support of the license application review and defense before the NRC, and for limited critical path design activities.  Sproat's office is re-baselining the repository program using these assumption to determine a new target opening date for the repository, and will send a report to Congress about this new date later this summer.

Also discussed at the House hearing was DOE's projection that as it is now legally constrained, Yucca Mountain will be fully committed in the spring of 2010.  The Nuclear Waste Policy Act requires DOE to submit a report to Congress on the need for a second repository by January 1, 2010.  Sproat said a second repository will not be DOE's recommendation, and will press for  changes to the current 70,000 metric ton limit at Yucca.  "We know it can hold significantly more than that," Sproat told the appropriators, later saying the repository could hold at least double than amount. DOE will be sending a report to Congress within the next few months with its recommendations.  (Note that the 70,000 metric ton limit refers to "the front end of the fuel cycle," and does not give allowance for any reduction in the actual amount of waste deposited.)

The delay of the repository's opening has significant financial implications.  Utilities are required to contract with DOE for it to take possession of spent nuclear fuel, which was to have started in 1998. DOE cannot do so until the repository opens.  DOE is now in partial breach of contract for its failure to take possession of this waste, which has resulted in more than 70 lawsuits. The department estimates that its total liability by 2017 will be $7 billion.  If the opening is delayed to 2020 that liability will approach $11billion.

Both hearings concluded without the appropriators indicating their intentions about the Administration's FY 2009 budget request for the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, as well as the much larger issue about providing the necessary funding stream to actually construct the repository and its supporting transportation system.