WASHINGTON – As problems mount with the government's plan to open a national nuclear waste (search) dump in Nevada, lawmakers and industry officials are increasingly pushing for a Plan B.
After the most recent setback for Yucca Mountain (search) — a revelation last week that government workers on the planned dump may have falsified documents — a key House Republican urged the Energy Department to look at temporary waste storage solutions.
And Senate Energy Committee Chairman Pete Domenici (search), R-N.M., is promoting talk of alternatives to Yucca Mountain, while nuclear utilities are already looking into other options. Many have begun building onsite storage for spent fuel and moving forward with plans for a private waste dump in Utah. They also are pursuing lawsuits against the government, seeking reimbursement for the cost of temporary waste storage.
While the Energy Department remains committed to Yucca Mountain, there's a growing consensus that the dump — scheduled until recently to open in 2010 but now delayed indefinitely — can no longer be considered the only answer for disposing of the nation's nuclear waste.
"What matters is getting rid of the fuel," said attorney Jerry Stouck, who represents nuclear utilities in lawsuits against the government. "I don't think Yucca Mountain is so important as a solution."
Yucca Mountain, approved by Congress in 2002, is planned as a repository for 77,000 tons of defense waste and used reactor fuel from commercial power plants. The material is supposed to be buried for at least 10,000 years beneath the desert 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
But the project has suffered serious setbacks, including funding problems and an appeals court decision last summer that's forcing a rewrite of radiation exposure limits for the site.
Some 55,000 tons of commercial reactor fuel and 16,000 tons of high-level defense waste are already waiting at sites in 39 states. The government, which originally promised nuclear utilities it would begin accepting their spent fuel in 1998, is facing billions of dollars in lawsuits for failing to make good on that pledge.
That mounting liability prompted Rep. David Hobson (search), R-Ohio, last week to urge the Energy Department official in charge of Yucca — Theodore Garrish — to start looking at alternatives.
Hobson, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee panel that oversees the project, proposed an interim, aboveground storage facility at the Nevada Test Site or elsewhere to accept waste for up to 500 years, giving scientists time to develop new disposal solutions.
"It doesn't take brain science to think that we could save money in the long run to get this stuff out of where it is and live up to an obligation, a contractual obligation," Hobson told Garrish at a hearing.
He also suggested another look at reprocessing used reactor fuel.
Garrish said the Energy Department remained "100 percent committed" to Yucca, but said he understood Hobson's complaints.
Hobson's ideas aren't new. The Energy Department pursued interim "monitored retrievable storage" facilities in the late 1980s and early 1990s before abandoning the idea. The Bush administration has also proposed reviving reprocessing, which the United States abandoned in the 1970s over fears the resulting plutonium could be seized by terrorists or a rogue state.
Yucca Mountain's chronic delays are forcing the ideas to the surface again, even from supporters.
"There has been a sea change in the way the nuclear community looks at Yucca Mountain," said Marnie Funk, spokeswoman for Domenici, the Energy Committee chairman who is a Yucca backer but nonetheless is open to such discussions. "People are no longer saying Yucca Mountain has to be finished in order for the nuclear industry to have a revival in this country. You can still have a nuclear renaissance without Yucca Mountain, but that would mean at some point other options have to be discussed."
The Justice Department settled a suit with Chicago-based electric utility Exelon Corp (search). last August for a sum that could rise to $600 million if Yucca Mountain doesn't open until 2015. Other suits are moving forward, including one by the Sacramento Municipal Utility District that began this week in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.
Damages against the government are estimated at $2 billion to $3 billion if Yucca Mountain opens in 2010, 12 years after the government's contractual obligation to start storing the nation's nuclear waste, Garrish told lawmakers. Damages could be $1 billion a year after that, meaning the project's annual liability costs would nearly match its projected budget needs.
The Energy Department has estimated the total cost of the project at $58 billion, but critics say it could rise much higher. In recognition of the delays, President Bush's 2006 budget request for the project was $651 million, about half what the Energy Department originally envisioned.
Meanwhile, a group of eight utility companies is moving forward with plans for a private, aboveground dump on an Indian reservation in Utah. That won approval in February from a licensing board and is awaiting final Nuclear Regulatory Commission approval.
Utah's congressional delegation opposes the project just as strenuously as Nevada lawmakers — including Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (search) — oppose Yucca Mountain. Now, many Utah officials say they're beginning to agree with Nevadans, who favor leaving the waste permanently at utility sites. The nuclear industry and the Energy Department oppose that idea.
"Pretty much the whole Utah delegation voted to do Yucca Mountain, and the premise there was we want that finished so it's not stuck in Utah," said Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah. "But since that vote the world has changed a lot. It just sees to me that the transition has been such that it now becomes reasonable to say not Utah, not Nevada, nowhere."