A new report to the U.S. Senate from the General Accounting Office states that the Obama administration’s closing of the Yucca Mountain nuclear storage facility “was made for policy reasons, not technical or safety reasons.”
This GAO report was requested after senators learned that the Obama administration intended to close the Yucca Mountain nuclear fuel storage site on which $10 billion has been spent. In a hearing, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee member John McCain repeatedly asked Department of Energy Secretary Stephen Chu, “What’s wrong with Yucca Mountain?” The secretary’s only response was that we could do a “better job”, without offering any information as to where or how this better job would be accomplished. The GAO report notes that at no time during its inquiry did the DOE “cite any technical concerns or safety issues related to the Yucca Mountain repository.” Instead the DOE only referred to the vague possibility of “better solutions”, without offering any.
The GAO report goes on to note that the DOE is now hastily dismantling the Yucca Mountain facility. These site closing steps, the report notes, “would likely hinder progress, should the Nuclear Regulatory Commission or the courts require DOE to resume the Yucca license review process.”
The GAO continues, “ There is no guarantee that a more acceptable or less costly alternative will be identified; termination could instead restart a costly and time-consuming process to find and develop an alternative permanent solution. It would also likely prolong the need for interim storage of spent nuclear fuel at reactor sites, which would have financial and other impacts.”
The federal government currently bears part of the spent fuel storage costs as a result of industry lawsuits over DOE’s failure to take custody of commercial spent nuclear fuel from 1998, as required. These costs, plus the spending on Yucca Mountain, now exceed $15.4 billion and could grow by an additional $500 million a year.
It is possible that somewhere on our nation’s 3.5 million square miles there is a better site for spent nuclear fuel than Yucca Mountain. But the extensive scientific search which selected the geologically stable Yucca Mountain ridge, didn’t find one.
The energy released per ounce of matter burned in nuclear fission is more than a million times the energy released from conventional combustion of an ounce of matter. As a result, only nuclear energy can provide the quantity of continuous clean reliable output with the power to replace the harmful emissions from burning fossil fuels. Today, spent nuclear fuel is accumulating in water pools and casks of concrete and steel at the sites of our 104 nuclear power reactors. Longer term, reprocessing and reuse of much of this material, as is done by France at LaHague, will simplify this problem. In the meantime, storage of those casks at Yucca Mountain is the obvious answer.
The final point in the GAO report suggests that “an independent organization may be better suited than DOE to overseeing nuclear waste management.” With this suggestion, which offers freedom from politics, we should heartily concur.
ROLF E. WESTGARD is a resident of both St. Paul and Deerwod. He taught the spring quarter class, “Nuclear energy, past, present, and future” for the University of Minnesota Lifelong Learning program.