support leaking away for yucca mountain

Nancy Spring, managing editor

Right now, it’s just a big tunnel, a big hole, and I’ve seen tunnels before,” said a member of the Utah House of Representatives upon touring the Yucca Mountain project in October. “Utah should not be supporting Yucca Mountain as a repository.”

It’s not surprising that support for the $85 billion repository is shrinking but it was almost inevitable when sites in other states came under consideration, such as the proposed Skull Valley interim storage facility on the Goshute Indian reservation in Utah.

U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah), previously a Yucca Mountain supporter, suddenly saw the light. “As it now becomes clear, scientifically, legally, and practically, Yucca Mountain is not going to become a single repository for nuclear waste, we need to start thinking about new strategies and new places to deal with this.”

The Yucca Mountain project has dragged on for almost 30 years. The U.S. Department of Energy started studying the idea in 1978. In 1982, a target date of 1998 was set for DOE to takeover the waste. In 2004, DOE said it anticipated opening the Yucca Mountain repository in 2010. But in April of this year, a federal judge wrote that this “does not appear to be credible.”

The judge, who was considering the validity of DOE’s contracts with nuclear utilities, found that “there is no evidence in the record that the government had reason to believe in 1983, 1989 or at present that Yucca Mountain will ever be licensed to store spent nuclear fuel.”

Last year, in a ruling on Nevada’s Yucca Mountain Lawsuits, the Court of Appeals found that the EPA’s 10,000-year safety standard on radiation containment at the site was arbitrary and inconsistent with the congressionally-mandated recommendations of the National Academy of Sciences. The EPA responded by setting new standards that “will protect public health for a million years,” claimed Jeffrey Holmstead, EPA assistant administrator for Air and Radiation.

Why not two million years? Once again, one has to question the credibility of such a statement.

The most recent end-around at Yucca Mountain is a proposal to improve the design so as to simplify fuel handling. It calls for operating Yucca Mountain as a “clean” or non-contaminated facility. Nuclear waste bound for Yucca Mountain would be sealed in canisters that could be put directly into the ground, eliminating the need to repackage the radioactive material at Yucca Mountain, the Energy Department said in October.

Handling facilities originally planned at the desert site could be eliminated.

“Something like what DOE proposed … would mean a major reassessment of the proposed project,” Sens. Harry Reid, D-Nev., and John Ensign, R-Nev., said in a joint statement. “We certainly appreciate the likely decades-long delay this announcement means. But this proposal is just words and a made-up scenario with no substance or fact.”

Nuclear power is obviously an important part of our generation mix. Indeed, it may become more important if we begin to regulate carbon dioxide emissions, as we discuss in this month’s Industry Report on operating rankings. Treating the waste in place seems to be a better option than spending more money and time on another redesign euphemistically called “clean.”

We are, as the old adage says, beating a dead horse. Putting an end to this project would be the prudent thing to do.

Letters to the Editor

I read your “Celebration ends….” commentary (Electric Light & Power, September/October 2005, p.8) and the sidebar with interest.

Something that you wrote struck a chord with me: “…we’ll be saving more space for the gas utilities.” As a result I re-read my 1990 paper “Initial Evaluation of the Natural Gas Industry and Opportunities for Electrical Generation Using Natural Gas as a Fuel.”

At the time I was serving on a committee that was trying to identify future gas usage by our utility. I wrote this report as a dissenting opinion. While never well-received, the last 15 years have proven it extremely accurate. In preparation I read everything I could find by EPRI, the U.S. government and the Gas Association on natural gas as a commodity. What I quickly learned was that these three main document sources were published sequentially, that each new publication referenced the preceding three documents, and that the results were a circular loop that had been in place for about 21 years. My report tried to describe the industry from a different perspective.

My work clearly needs updating but still retains observations and conclusions that I have seen nowhere else. My position today is that the gas industry is much more like a spider waiting for the electric industry to blunder into its web than a true energy partner.

John Brodar P.E.
Salt River Project

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