E&E Daily

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

NUCLEAR POWER: Domenici delivers new message on future of Yucca Mountain

Mary O'Driscoll, E&E Daily senior reporter

This story builds on a version that first appeared in yesterday's E&ENews PM.

The chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee dropped the equivalent of a bomb on the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository yesterday when he said the site will never receive spent nuclear fuel rods.

Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) said lengthy project delays at the Nevada site will require fitting the repository into the Bush administration's ambitious Global Nuclear Energy Partnership waste reprocessing and recycling program. Domenici told reporters nuclear utilities likely will have to store their used fuel on-site "for quite some time" before either some interim storage plan begins or GNEP recycling plants are operating.

The time frame, he said, "might be longer" than what the utilities had intended for using on-site used fuel storage facilities.

On the issue of GNEP, which House energy appropriators last week cut by $100 million from the proposed $250 million fiscal year 2007 budget, Domenici said he intends to "fully fund" and possibly add more money for the controversial program.

"I want to see if I can look around" for more GNEP funding, said Domenici, who also chairs the Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee.

The outcome of the GNEP program over the next 24 months, he added, "is going to determine what kind of an ultimate repository we need."

Clearly, he added, "we are not going to be putting spent fuel rods in Yucca Mountain. To me, that quite obviously won't work."

That talk immediately raised speculation that he could be opening the door to funding GNEP with the nuclear waste trust fund, the multibillion-dollar pot of money created by assessments on ratepayers of nuclear utilities for building the Yucca Mountain repository.

But he acknowledged that would require work to change the law regarding interim storage of nuclear waste. Though DOE offered legislation last month to jump-start the Yucca Mountain process, it omitted any mention of interim storage. Domenici called that "a big vacuum" in the bill.

Reid: No victory

Domenici is an enthusiastic backer of both GNEP and Yucca Mountain and frequently spars with Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), ranking Democrat on the subcommittee, over the levels of funding for the repository. But he said extensive delays at Yucca Mountain are forcing a reassessment. Originally set to open in 1998, Congress gave final approval for the site in 2002, and Nevada will be challenging every aspect of the program from here on out.

Congress and DOE, Domenici said, "must reconcile Yucca Mountain and GNEP [and] take advantage of the unavoidable delays to pursue the new recycling technology that will increase capacity at Yucca Mountain." The recycled waste, which would be stored at Yucca Mountain, has less volume and radioactivity and therefore more of it can be stored in the underground caverns.

Reid welcomed Domenici's remarks, saying in an interview yesterday that of anyone, Domenici "understands how much things cost, and he's a realist."

But Reid would not claim victory on Yucca Mountain just yet.

"In Yucca Mountain, there are no victories," he said. "I'm happy this is happening, but we will keep on fighting. We will keep our guard up and see what happens."

Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) called Domenici "ahead of a lot of senators. He's been going in that direction for some time.

"This is a very important person to be saying these things," Ensign said.

When asked about Domenici's comments, Paul Golan, acting director of DOE's Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, noted that DOE will spend $2 billion to $3 billion through 2010 in payments to utilities that successfully sued the department for its failure to take the waste as it had promised in 1998. He said the department would continue to work on the Yucca program but also would talk to Domenici and other lawmakers on issues such as interim storage.

Redesign questions

DOE this summer will release new redesigns of the repository and the multiple-use casks into which the waste would be placed for transport and storage. Also expected is a new schedule for filing its license application for the repository, but DOE is not expected to file with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission before 2008.

But Bob Loux, director of the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Waste Projects, testified at yesterday's hearing that a recent statement by DOE officials at a meeting of the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board revealed the department will not have a final design ready for its casks for another six years.

That, Loux said, means that DOE should not be filing its license application until it gets the final cask design. That could put off the license application to 2012, which in turn could further put off the opening date for the repository.

"It's inconceivable that they could submit a license application before then," he told reporters after the hearing, signaling it is one key area that Nevada could use in its legal fight against the repository.

Golan countered that was "one person's opinion, not my opinion," and added that the department could file its application beforehand and amend it when the cask design is complete.

Lawmakers blame Nevada

Loux felt the wrath of lawmakers who complained about Nevada's continuous fight against the repository. Sens. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) and Larry Craig (R-Idaho) took turns bashing Nevada for not working with DOE to improve the project, a stance that Loux did not deny -- and indeed emphasized when he said the state would challenge DOE's fitness to file the license application.

"We're not doing anything your state wouldn't do," Loux told Bunning after the senator accused state officials of causing the delays through legal and regulatory challenges to the program.

"Unfortunately, you're wrong," Bunning replied, adding that when Kentucky was approached to host Energy Department programs, it "didn't resist" and now is home of one Superfund site for which the state will be responsible forever.

Craig, whose home state of Idaho now houses much of the defense-related wastes that would head to Yucca Mountain once it opens, hit Loux for calling DOE an "out of control agency," calling it "bad rhetoric." DOE and NRC "are probably the most controlled agencies we have," he added.

He also blamed Nevada and its congressional delegation for delays at the site, and for working to keep Yucca Mountain from opening. "We will work around you," Craig said, calling the repository the "safest [repository] ever designed by man."