Analysis: Reid's Yucca and nuke waste plan

By BEN LANDO, UPI Energy Correspondent  |  Dec. 4, 2006 at 6:38 PM
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WASHINGTON, Dec. 4 (UPI) -- Sen. Harry Reid becomes the most powerful person in the U.S. Senate next month and the Nevada Democrat says he'll oversee the killing of a decades-long, multibillion dollar plan to store nuclear waste inside a mountain in his state.

Fellow opponents of the Yucca Mountain Project say the site is unsafe to hold spent nuclear fuel and transporting it there is a security risk.

The nuclear industry calls it a business liability if nuclear waste isn't taken off its hands, warning it may hinder a resurgence of nuclear power in the country.

But after three decades of exploration at Yucca Mountain, 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, and $10 billion (15 percent of the project's total expected cost for its first 100 years), the U.S. Energy Department is 20 years behind schedule to get federal regulator approval for the site, let alone open it.

"Yucca Mountain is dead. It'll never happen," Reid told United Press International in an exclusive interview in his Las Vegas office.

As a powerful Democratic Party member, Reid has been able to engineer regular funding cuts to the project, though scientific exploration of the mountain-as-repository continues.

Beginning January, he'll be in charge of the Senate, already pledging to block bills aimed at maneuvering the project via legislative mandates, like the failed Bush administration-prompted "Fix Yucca Bill," which would have bolstered the project's funding and allowed the Energy Department to receive permits easier, among other aspects, introduced earlier this year.

Reid also plans to further trim Yucca's annual budget, cut to just over $300 million in fiscal year 2006.

"That's a tremendous waste of money," Reid said. "Just forget about that. It's not going to happen. So why continue this game?"

Nuclear power is getting a fresh look as an alternative energy source to oil and gas, and the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission expects around 30 applications for new reactors soon.

"To realize fully the benefits that nuclear power offers, however, the country must resolve outstanding issues related to the ultimate disposal of used nuclear fuel," Tony Earley, chairman of the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry trade group, told a Senate hearing on the Fix Yucca Bill in September.

"If overall spending totals remain flat, even more significant delays could result, not because nuclear power consumers have not provided the funds necessary to support the program, but because of inappropriate federal budget accounting."

In 1987, Congress ended the search for a geologic repository to store the waste, and limited site studies to only Yucca. In 2002, it was officially declared the final resting place for highly radioactive nuclear waste.

Yucca is capped at holding 77,000 tons, which will either need to be amended or an additional repository built to store waste that remains radioactive for tens of thousands if not millions of years. Currently 54,000 tons are stockpiled at weapons sites and at operating and shuttered nuclear power plants around the country; about 2,000 tons of nuclear waste is produced annually, the byproduct of nuclear energy, nuclear weapons and nuclear technology exploration.

Yucca was to be the final solution.

But the project has been plagued by accusations of unsound science and claims the quality assurance program isn't given enough independence.

Outside the mountain, there is no final proposed route to get the waste there. A combination of mostly railway and some trucked shipments is the leading contender for the method of delivery.

It's also another tract for Reid's Kill Yucca agenda.

"There's no way in the world we're gong to have 77,000 tons of nuclear waste, the most poisonous substance known to man, hauled across our highways and railways in this country, past schools, homes, playgrounds and businesses," Reid said.

He said he favors using money from the Nuclear Waste Fund -- money ratepayers contribute to solving the nuclear waste storage issue ($27 billion since 1982) -- for keeping the waste at the nuclear plants. The federal government was supposed to take possession of the waste by 1998, the original opening date for Yucca.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has authority to approve the site, but the department's attempt to complete an application has been set back by lawsuits and regulatory challenges as well as controversy over science at the site.

Yucca Mountain was born from the decision mid-20th century that nuclear waste from the U.S. weapons program -- and then nuclear energy when it was developed -- should be buried deep underground.

But when the 110th Congress takes the reins, it may have to choose a new fate for the waste unless it finds some life support to curb Reid's prerogative to kill Yucca Mountain.

"It's dying on its own. It's just happening," Reid said. "You don't need just a sudden demise. It's breathing really hard. Just let it lay there a while and it'll be dead."


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