Uphill Challenges To Trump Administration Restarting Yucca Mountain

The Trump administration wants to revive Yucca Mountain, the national nuclear waste repository in Nevada that was canceled by the Obama administration in 2010, but the hurdles are high, both politically and financially.

President Donald Trump’s proposed 2018 budget included $150 million in funding to revive the licensing process for Yucca Mountain, comprising $120 million for the Department of Energy to support the completion of the licensing process and $30 million for Nuclear Regulatory Commission activities related to Yucca Mountain.

 EHJ President Norris McDonald at Yucca Mountain

EHJ President Norris McDonald at Yucca Mountain

On July 18, the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development approved a $38.4 billion funding measure that included provisions for consolidated nuclear waste storage and for funding to allow the Department of Energy to store nuclear waste at private facilities licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. But the subcommittee excluded funds requested to restart the Yucca Mountain relicensing process.

Local opposition to Yucca Mountain has always been strong, and when Harry Reid was Nevada’s senior senator and first Majority Leader and then Minority Leader of the Senate, he was able to block efforts to move Yucca Mountain forward. Reid retired in 2017, but opposition is still strong.

Nevada’s Republican and Democratic senators, Dean Heller and Catherine Cortez Masto, respectively, as well as Gov. Brian Sandoval are all opposed to restarting the licensing process for Yucca Mountain.

So far $7.5 billion has been spent on Yucca Mountain. And, as of September 2016, there was $36 billion in the nuclear waste fund created under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which authorized the collection of fees from rate payers to pay for transporting and storing spent nuclear fuel.

The Nuclear Waste Policy Act was passed in 1982. Yucca Mountain was selected in 1987 and was supposed to start accepting nuclear waste in 1998, but the repository never opened. The budget was zeroed out in 2010 by President Barack Obama. 

Without a repository, nuclear operators have been forced to store spent fuel in pools at nuclear plant sites for decades. When the fuel cools sufficiently, usually in about five years, it is moved to dry cask storage. Virtually all of the spent fuel in the United States is now either in pools or in dry casks on site at the nuclear plant where it began its useful life.

Paying to process and store the fuel is not an expense nuclear operators were supposed to bear. It was supposed to be covered by the nuclear waste fund, but the fund can only be used for permanent geological storage of high level nuclear waste.

To cover the costs of onsite storage, nuclear operators have been suing the federal government for breach of contract. So far, there have been 70 judgments against the government, resulting in payments to nuclear operators “north of $6 billion.  The number is only going to go up.  Every year a national repository is not ready to accept spent fuel adds another $500 million to the costs.

The Department of Energy, which is responsible for the disposal of nuclear waste, estimates the government’s total liability will be $29 billion by 2022, assuming that the government starts accepting nuclear waste by then. Some estimates put the cost as high as $50 billion. The funds come from the so-called Judgment Trust, which is funded by tax payers.

Citizens are paying twice and are still not getting a permanent solution. And in communities where nuclear plants have been closed, they have lost the tax revenue from the nuclear plant and are now hosting a nuclear waste dump on a site that cannot be used for another productive purpose.

Even if the Trump administration’s efforts are successful, it will be decades before a national repository is ready to begin accepting fuel, Keeley said.

Some railroad tracks have been laid and about five miles of tunnels have been drilled in Yucca Mountain to perform tests in what has been called “the most studied rock in the world,” but otherwise actual construction of the 42 miles of tunnels that the repository would require has not begun. The repository would also require 300 miles of new railroad tracks to move the spent fuel to Yucca Mountain. The NRC completed most of its safety evaluation studies on the site in 2015 – a prerequisite for handing the project off to the DOE – but the project was halted just as it was set to enter public hearing phase.

There are already at least 300 “contentions” lined up protesting the use of Yucca Mountain and a spent fuel repository. Those have to be heard and resolved before the project can move forward. In the near term, “litigating the contentions” is the main obstacle to getting Yucca Mountain back on tracks, says Keeley.

In an April 2017 report, the Government Accountability Office said it could take as much as one year for staff to get back up to speed and as much as five years and $330 million to resume and complete the licensing process.

Meanwhile spent fuel continues to pile up. There is already 70,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel stored at sites around the nation. But even if Yucca Mountain were to open tomorrow, it would already be full because the legislation enabling the repository put a 70,000 metric ton cap on how much spent fuel could be stored at the site. But 70,000 is an artificial number and the site could actually hold 100,000 metric tons or more.

In June a House panel passed a bill that would amend the Nuclear Waste Policy Act and allow, among other things, the elimination of the cap.  (Utility Dive, 7/21/2017)