Yucca Mountain stalemate

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By Roger Snodgrass

From the geological perspective, a quarter century or so is not a lot of time. But for many observers, progress in creating the world’s first geological high-level nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada has been so glacially slow as to seem like no motion at all.

“Nuclear Waste Stalemate,” the title of a book by Robert Vandenbosch and Susanne E. Vandenbosch and published last year, captures the essence of that virtual standstill, as the book digs into the “Political and Scientific Controversies” – the volume’s subtitle – that continue very nearly to cancel each other out.

Robert Vandenbosch is an emeritus professor of chemistry at the University of Washington and his wife Susanne has a Ph.D.    in political science.

“I’m more opposed to Yucca Mountain than Bob is,” Susanne said, in a recent interview with the authors. “We both feel this should be solved.”

With at least two sides of the debate represented, the authors say they have tried to provide an academic perspective without too much opinion, in a field where there are many books clearly against the Yucca Mountain project and perhaps not quite as many in favor.

“He’s biased one way,” Susanne said. “I’m the other way and we come to agreement on what to put down.”

Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman announced a key milestone in the Yucca Mountain saga June 3, when he declared the application for a construction license complete and submitted it to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for an approval process that will, at best, take three or four years.

When the Nuclear Waste Policy Act was passed in 1982, laying out the plans for arriving at an answer to the disposal of nuclear fuel from American nuclear power plants, the long-range deadline to begin storage was set at no later than Jan. 31, 1998. There are now, according to recent testimony by Marvin S. Fertel, “more than 60 lawsuits against the federal government” in the Court of Claims brought by utilities companies for damages related to the failure to meet that deadline.

Part of the trouble arose during the next phase of the project, as the Vandenboschs discuss in their chapter on “The Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act of 1987.”

“The most important change was the curtailment of the selection process and the naming of Yucca Mountain, Nev., as the only site to be studied further for the first permanent repository,” they write.

Nevada’s political opposition began shortly after that and has grown much stronger, particularly with the ascension of Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., to the post of Senate Majority Leader.

“The opposition has been pretty strong and we haven’t seen the last of it,” Robert Vandenbosch said, describing a key factor in the continuing stalemate. “Nevada has tried to stymie the project for understandable state reasons.”

At a July 15 hearing in Washington, D.C., Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., who represents Las Vegas, provided testimony perfectly in tune with her constituents.

“Nevadans know a bad bet when we see one,” she said. “I can report that opposition to Yucca Mountain at home remains as strong as ever, with polls showing more than 75 percent of Nevada residents saying they want to continue fighting this reckless proposal.”

Although DOE has submitted its application, some of the critics believe there is a piece missing that will kill it.

The ins and outs of this, too, are detailed in the Vandenboschs’ chapter on “Court Appeals,” which takes up the legal dispute over Yucca Mountain’s radiation standard.

Essentially, Congress gave the authority to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to set the standards for how long Yucca Mountain can safely contain nuclear waste. Some of the constituents of the high-level wastes have half-lives of hundreds of thousands to millions of years.

But the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, the only court under the law that can rule on Yucca Mountain appeals, threw out the first EPA standard aimed at only 10,000 years because it did not meet standards suggested by the National Academies of Science as Congress had specified.

Again, the stalemate arises.

“Either EPA makes its standards consistent with NAS, or Congress has to change the law,” Robert Vandenbosch said.

Although EPA revised its regulation in 2006 and a final version was supposed to have been released last year after a public comment period, it has not been released to the public.

“So, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission does not have in hand the standards by which to judge (DOE’s application),” he said. “They say, ‘We can start,’ but clearly there have to be benchmarks.’”

The book also deals with many other ongoing issues including transportation and repository developments in other countries with a similar brisk balance and unobtrusive confidence.

As a bonus, there are several appendices with useful information.

One of them contains brief histories of the secretaries of energy who have been involved in the Yucca Mountain Project, including this quote from New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, before he became head of the department.

The Vandenboschs write, “He was quoted toward the end of his term as saying, ‘What worries me most in this job is what to do with 50 years worth of nuclear waste.’”