DOE: Expand Yucca Mountain or plan new site

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Friday, December 12
BRATTLEBORO - The secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy told the president and Congress on Tuesday that the time is now to act on either expanding a proposed nuclear waste facility in Nevada or developing a second site.

"The Secretary of Energy recommends that Congress act promptly to remove the statutory limit ... and defer a decision regarding the need for a second repository," stated Samuel Bodman.

The facility was authorized by Congress for the storage of 70,000 metric tons of waste, he wrote.

The secretary wrote that the limit set by Congress has nothing to do with the physical characteristics of Yucca Mountain and recommended Congress authorize the proposed facility to hold three to four times the amount it originally approved.

By 2010, wrote the secretary, in a 14-page document presented to the executive and legislative branches of the government, operating nuclear power plants in the United States will have produced more waste than can legally fit into Yucca Mountain in Nye County, Nev.

Fifty-eight thousand tons of waste was to come from the power plants, while the rest was to come from government reactors and the U.S. Navy, which uses nuclear power to run submarines, aircraft carriers and other ships.

Nuclear waste from operating commercial power plants is accumulating at 2,000 tons a year, according to the document.

The secretary wrote that with 47 of the 104 operating reactors receiving 20-year license extensions, even more waste will be produced.

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If Congress doesn't authorize an increase in Yucca Mountain's storage capacity, it must authorize the Department of Energy to look at sites for a second repository. According to DOE documents, it could take up to 28 years to find a location and build a new site.

Looking for a second site has its own challenges, wrote the secretary.

"To reinstate a second repository program could reopen all of the issues about the siting process that took years of congressional effort to resolve prior to passage ... (such as) the role of host states, the number of sites to be characterized, criteria for guidelines, the site recommendation process, voluntary versus directed siting and other matters."

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During the original second site process, nine locations were identified -- two in Texas, Utah and Mississippi, and one in Louisiana, Nevada and Washington.

In addition, 25 other states -- including all of those in New England except for Rhode Island -- had sites that had the geologic characteristics necessary for the safe storage of nuclear waste.

The New England states were identified because of their granite formations.

Reprocessing the fuel might be a partial solution to the storage problem, wrote the secretary, but that process creates its own waste that needs to be stored.

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Yucca Mountain was supposed to start storing spent fuel by this time, but the opening of the repository has been delayed due to technical, environmental and legal concerns.

Since the federal government has been unable to live up to its promise to start moving the fuel, many owners of nuclear power plants have sued the government to get some of that money back to pay for the storage of spent fuel at locations such as Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon.

The cost of developing Yucca Mountain, transporting and storing the spent fuel has been financed by a one-tenth of one cent per kilowatt hour assessment on all commercial generation of power in the country.

In 2002, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that DOE is not authorized to pay out settlements from the nuclear waste fund moneys. Instead, the department would have to make payments from the U.S. Treasury's Judgment Fund.

The DOE estimates it could cost the judgment fund up to $11 billion to settle the suits. The fund was established by Congress in the 1950s to pay in whole or in part the court judgments and settlement agreements negotiated by the Justice Department on behalf of agencies, as well as certain types of administrative awards.

"Continued deferral of a decision to add that disposal capacity will add to the costs of management at the current sites," he wrote.

Bob Audette can be reached at, or 802-254-2311, ext. 273.


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