More pressure over Yucca

30 April 2009

Republican Senators put pressure on energy secretary Steven Chu over his decision that the Yucca Mountain project is "not an option" with a letter asking him "why?"


Yucca Mountain had enjoyed the support of President George W Bush, but President Barack Obama campaigned on the line that it was "not an option." This was echoed by Obama's energy secretary, Steven Chu, and the pair decided to reduce funding for the project to all but zero in their February budget.


The result is that, although Yucca has not been officially cancelled, the USA currently has no firm plan for the disposition of over 60,000 tonnes of used nuclear fuel from power stations as well as 20,500 tonnes of wastes from military activities.


The letter sent yesterday by 17 Senators to Chu detailed the various research panels that, since 1957, have guided US radioactive waste policy towards deep geologic disposal as well as the huge sums of money involved. It stated that "neither the National Academy of Sciences, the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board, nor any of our National Labs... have concluded that there is any evidence to disqualify Yucca Mountain as a respository."


The Senators then remind Chu that he, as head of Lawrence Berkeley National Lab signed an August 2008 letter on the "essential role of nuclear energy which advocated continuing the licensing of a geologic repository at Yucca Mountain."


"Given this history, President Obama's memoranda that science will guide public policy and his commitment to an unprecedented level of openness, we find it difficult to reconcile your statement that Yucca Mountain 'is not an option' made after only six weeks in office."


Chu is then asked, "what is the reason" for his decision that Yucca Mountain is not an option as well as what was the legal basis for that decision and whether he has discovered new research to discredit all that came before in support of Yucca. He is also asked if he consulted on the effects a policy change would have on military programs and weapons site clean-up. Chu is requested to explain what he expects a new blue ribbon panel to find that has not previously been considered.


In addition, the letter includes a request for details of the scientists that briefed Chu on Yucca Mountain, including their qualifications and the materials they used, as well as the public involvement process conducted in support of the decision. A response is requested by 1 June.


Yesterday's letter comes a week after an optimistic bill backed by Republican Senators which would, if approved, require Obama to either endorse Yucca Mountain or liquidate the $30 billion waste fund for repayment to utilities, customers, power producers and those states holding military waste.


Yucca Mountain by (estimated) numbers

 Construction cost

$27 billion

 Lifetime cost $96 billion
 Funds collected so far $30 billion from power producers
$3.5 billion from taxpayers
 Spent already

$13.5 billion

 Capacity limited by Congress  70,000 tHM
 Ultimate capacity   132,000 tHM
 Current waste stocks 60,000 tHM civil
  20,500 tHM military
 Original opening date 1998
 Current estimate 2017-20
 Liability for late opening $11 billion
+ $500 million per year after 2020