By Michael Mariotte


The tortured history of the Yucca Mountain radioactive waste project took another twist Thursday as the NRC released a key portion of its Safety Evaluation Report (SER) for the project.

Judging from the reaction of the nuclear industry and its backers, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the release of Volume 3 (of five volumes, three of which are not yet completed) meant that the radwaste trains would begin rolling into the mountain this morning.

In a statement on the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s website, Committee chairman Fred Upton (R-MI), a steadfast supporter of all things nuclear, called the report “game-changing,” and said the American public can now have confidence that the repository would be in fact “safe for a million years.”

Not to be outdone, Environment and Energy subcommittee chair John Shimkus (R-IL), like Upton a guy who has ardently backed the nuclear industry no matter what the issue, said on the same site, “Yucca Mountain is one of the most studied geological formations on the planet and today’s report confirms what we’ve expected all along: nuclear waste stored under that mountain, in that desert, surrounded by federal land will be safe and secure for at least a million years.”

The Nuclear Energy Institute was actually cautious in comparison, and used the occasion to call for more taxpayer funding to get the Yucca project licensed and moving.

The New York Times used the headline: Calls to Use Yucca Mountain as a Nuclear Waste Site, Now Deemed Safe to describe the release of the SER–a highly-technical document that it seems highly unlikely any of the legislators, industry spokespeople or reporters actually have read. Unless, of course, they’re speedreaders who can plow through 781 pages of technical jargon, geologic interpretation and the like in a matter of minutes, or at most a couple of hours before making their statements and filing their stories.

Most of them likely didn’t get much further than the one-paragraph abstract, the key part of which says that the SER,

“documents the results of the NRC staff’s evaluation to determine whether the proposed repository design complies with the performance objectives and requirements that apply after the repository is permanently closed. The NRC staff finds, with reasonable expectation, that DOE has demonstrated compliance with the NRC regulatory requirements for postclosure safety, including, but not limited to, “Performance objectives for the geologic repository after permanent closure” in 10 CFR 63.113, “Requirements for performance assessment” in 10 CFR 63.114, “Requirements for multiple barriers” in 10 CFR 63.115, and “Postclosure Public Health and Environmental Standards” in 10 CFR Part 63, Subpart L. In particular, the NRC staff finds that the proposed repository at Yucca Mountain (1) is comprised of multiple barriers and (2) based on performance assessment evaluations that are in compliance with applicable regulatory requirements, meets the 10 CFR Part 63, Subpart L limits for individual protection, human intrusion, and separate standards for protection of groundwater.”

We won’t pretend: we haven’t read the SER yet. Yes, Yucca Mountain has been studied to death, but different people have reached different conclusions about its safety. The requirements for Yucca have changed over the years–decades actually–and weakened in most cases when it became clear Yucca couldn’t meet the original requirements. It’s not too likely that the SER is going to change many people’s minds, especially when experts delve into the fine print and find out what it really says.

This Volume 3 was released by court order; in August 2013 a federal appeals court ruled that the NRC–which had stopped work on the project because of lack of Congressionally-appropriated funding–had to start up again using funding from the Nuclear Waste Fund.

The NRC says it will release the next volumes of the SER as they are completed, which the agency expects will be by January 2015.

But that’s hardly the end of the story, nor the beginning of Yucca Mountain as a radioactive waste dump.

As the NRC noted in its press statement accompanying the document release,

“Publication of Volume 3 does not signal whether the NRC might authorize construction of
the repository. A final licensing decision, should funds beyond those currently available be appropriated, could come only after completion of the safety evaluation report, a supplement to the Department of Energy’s environmental impact statement, hearings on contentions in the adjudication, and Commission review.”

Translation: with some 300 contentions already filed but suspended along with the licensing process itself in September 2011, and more contentions surely to come based on the new SER, there is a very long process ahead. And that process will only resume if Congress appropriates money for it, and the President allows that money to go through.

And that brings us to the politics of the issue.

One of President Obama’s first acts in office was–at the urging of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid–to try to end the Yucca Mountain project in 2009. Since then, using his power as Majority Leader, Reid has successfully beat back Republican-led efforts to fund the remnants of the project. Reid has made no secret of the fact that he wants to protect his state of Nevada and ensure Yucca Mountain never happens.

But with the Senate up-for-grabs in this year’s midterm election, it’s possible Republicans could take control of the Senate and Reid could lose his position as Majority Leader in the next Congress. And that would leave an opening for a resumption of funding for the project and certainly new Congressional pressure on the NRC to move ahead with it, regardless of its merits. Because, if there is one thing that has been clear since Yucca Mountain was designated as the nation’s sole high-level radioactive waste back in 1989, it’s that Congress has no clue whatsoever about whether Yucca is an environmentally-appropriate place for nuclear waste. It is, however, in the Republican’s view–and many Democrats as well–a politically-appropriate place for the nation’s lethal nuclear rubbish. And for them, it’s politics–not public health and safety–that matters.

If the Republicans control the next Congress, count on it: there will be renewed efforts to move Yucca Mountain ahead as quickly as possible. But the legal process and constraints will work to make “as quickly as possible” a slow, agonizing, and expensive (for all sides) process in any case.

radwastetransportroutestickercrop2So, also expect a new focus on “centralized interim storage” from the next Congress. A “temporary” site, where radioactive waste casks can line up in parking lot fashion like rows of buses at a protest holding point.

A “temporary” site–in quotation marks because it is by not means certain Yucca Mountain will ever–in a legal sense–be found suitable as a radioactive waste dump and actually opened for waste. Yucca Mountain is not the industry’s goal anyway; they just want the waste off their properties and they don’t really care whether it’s at a temporary or permanent site.

“Centralized interim storage,” if approved by Congress (and a bill to implement that in the current Congress faded away in the Senate Energy Committee), would mean the transport of thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of radioactive waste casks across the country–on our normal highways, railways and even some sea lanes. It’s a concept long known as “Mobile Chernobyl” and it’s been beaten back every time proposed for some 20 years or more.

But expect it to come back again next year, and with more momentum behind it.

Because radioactive waste is essentially eternal. And even though there are not, yet, any real solutions–the kind that are scientifically-defensible, environmentally-sound and publicly-acceptable–to this vexing problem, that has never stopped the nuclear industry and its backers from promoting bad ideas, dangerous ideas, silly ideas to make it seem as if the problem were solved until, of course, something goes wrong–current example WIPP–and the public learns that the problems haven’t been solved at all.

Release of a 781-page technical report is not a sign that Yucca Mountain is in danger of imminent opening. It’s not. But it may well serve as a springboard for a new font of bad ideas or, more likely, just the return of a lot of old, bad ideas. The nuclear industry is, at the least, persistent in its pursuit of policies that will serve it at the nation’s expense.

Michael Mariotte

October 17, 2014


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Filed under: Inside Washington, Radioactive waste Tagged: Mobile Chernobyl, New York Times, NRC, Rep. Fred Upton, Rep. John Shimkus, Sen. Harry Reid, Yucca Mountain

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