Nuclear Waste Disposal Showdown at Yucca Mountain: The Administration's Decision to Withdraw the Application for a Nuclear Waste Repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, Lacks Scientific Justification and Could Hamper the Nation's Effort to Use Nuclear Energy to Reduce Emissions of Greenhouse Gases

By Carter, Luther J.; Barrett, Lake H. et al. | Issues in Science and Technology, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

Nuclear Waste Disposal Showdown at Yucca Mountain: The Administration's Decision to Withdraw the Application for a Nuclear Waste Repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, Lacks Scientific Justification and Could Hamper the Nation's Effort to Use Nuclear Energy to Reduce Emissions of Greenhouse Gases


Carter, Luther J., Barrett, Lake H., Rogers, Kenneth C., Issues in Science and Technology


If the nation is to seriously confront a growing inventory of highly radioactive waste, a key step is to determine the merits of its geologic repository project at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. A board of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has for nearly two years been conducting an open and transparent licensing proceeding to accomplish exactly that. Moreover, in its forceful ruling of June 29, 2010, the board rejected as contrary to law a motion by Secretary of Energy Steven Chu to withdraw the licensing application and shut the proceeding down. Yet the administration's attempt to abandon Yucca Mountain continues and in our view poses a significant risk of a major setback for public acceptance of nuclear energy

The licensing application was filed by the Bush administration under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA) of 1982, and the proceeding itself began in October 2008. The NRC staff has almost completed its safety evaluation of repository performance for many tens of thousands of years. With this report in hand, the licensing board (acting for the commission) could begin hearing and adjudicating scores of critical contentions by the state of Nevada and other opposing parties. If the case for licensing is convincing, the granting of a construction license could come in 2012. But the licensing board is a creature of the NRC, and if the commission should order the proceeding terminated in keeping with Secretary Chu's motion, the board must comply.

The attempt by the current administration to withdraw the licensing application and abandon Yucca Mountain follows a commitment made by Barack Obama in early 2008 during the competitive scramble for Nevada delegates to the Democratic National Convention. Hillary Clinton, then the hands-on favorite for the nomination, had long sided with Nevada in its opposition to a repository at Yucca Mountain. Not to be outdone, Senator Obama declared his own categorical opposition to the project. Earlier this year, when President Obama, acting through Secretary Chu, moved to withdraw the licensing application, no scientific justification or showing of alternatives was offered. The project was simply dismissed as "not a workable option."

To cover Obama's political debt to Nevada, repository licensing would be terminated without congressional review and approval despite the fact that this vital project was sanctioned by Congress in elaborate detail and handsomely funded by a fee imposed on tens of millions of consumers of electricity produced by nuclear reactors. The licensing proceeding marks the culmination of a 25-year site investigation that has cost over $7 billion for the Nevada project itself and over $10 billion for the larger national screening of repository sites from which the Yucca Mountain site was chosen.

What's at stake

To summarily kill the project would cap with still another failure a half-century of frustrated endeavors to site, license, and construct a geologic repository. The roughly 64,000 metric tons of spent reactor fuel that await permanent geologic disposal are now in temporary storage at 120 operating and shut-down commercial nuclear power reactors in 36 states. In addition, there are the thousands of containers of highly radioactive waste arising from the cleanup of nuclear weapons production sites in Washington, South Carolina, and Idaho.

Now pending before the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia are lawsuits brought by Washington, South Carolina, the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, and several other plaintiffs to stop the licensing withdrawal. Most tellingly, the plaintiffs allege violations of the NWPA of 1982, with its detailed prescriptions for repository site selection, approval, and construction licensing. But also in play is the Administrative Procedure Act, under which agency decisions can be voided as "arbitrary and capricious" and an abuse of discretion.

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