National Journal

Yucca Plan Hits Another Snag, Domenici Sees Long Delay

By Darren Goode

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Domenici said Tuesday that Congress might need to restructure the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository project because there is no plan to recycle a growing number of spent fuel rods that would otherwise be stored there.

Such a move would mean further delay for a project that is already behind schedule, even as Congress and the Bush administration are starting to think about the need for a second waste-storage site.

"I think I'm telling you that everything is delayed for a long time," Domenici said. "Confusion is rampant. Timelines are all out of whack."

Following his committee's hearing on the status of the stalled project, Domenici said it has "become quite clear we're not going to be putting the spent fuel rods in Yucca Mountain. I think we're going to have to put recycling in the legislative process that involves Yucca Mountain."

Domenici does not want to put spent nuclear fuel rods at the Nevada site because only about 5 percent of their energy has been used when they come out of a reactor. "Recycling is ultimately responsible for what kind of repository we need," Domenici said. "It will certainly be a different Yucca Mountain than we have been talking about."

This could mean trying to combine the Bush administration's new Global Nuclear Energy Partnership program, which aims to expand global nuclear energy production and the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel, and the Yucca project, Domenici said. He said there is time to do this without further delaying the Yucca project because it is already moving slowly.

Congress approved Yucca Mountain as the site of the repository in 2002 but the Energy Department has not yet applied for an operating license. Department officials say they will announce a schedule this summer for submitting that application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The Energy Department last month sent Congress a long-awaited plan to modify and expedite completion of the repository, including lifting the current statutory limit on the amount of waste that could be stored there, expediting federal licensing and environmental reviews and withdrawing land around the site from public use.

While Domenici is a big supporter of the global partnership, it has been criticized by Democrats and other Republicans as too far reaching and expensive. Critics also say it might offset nuclear nonproliferation efforts.

The House Appropriations Committee today is marking up a FY07 Energy and Water spending bill that undercuts the administration's $250 million initial request for the global partnership by $96 million. Still. Domenici pledged to "fully fund it and ... see if I can look around and find more money."

While recycling spent nuclear fuel would ideally reduce the amount of waste needed to be stored at Yucca, there is growing interest in establishing a second national repository, even as the Yucca project remains stalled.

The Energy Department estimates more than 100.000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel will be generated by existing reactors and is advocating that the 70.000 metric ton cap at Yucca be loosened.

Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., calculated that the United States will reach that limit by 2010. "What's next?" Burr asked at the hearing. "At what point do we collectively ... look at this and say we've got to think about something else."

Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., blamed both the Energy Department and EPA for dragging their feet. "We're to the limit of what we can even put in," Bunning said. "And now you're talking about a second repository? Do you know how foolish that looks to the American public?"

Paul Golan, acting director of the Energy Department's Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste, told reporters after the hearing that he assembled a task force Monday to make an initial report in July about selecting a second site.

Waste is stored at more than 120 temporary locations in 39 states. The House FY07 Energy and Water spending bill includes $30 million for interim storage on top of the $544.5 million the Bush administration has requested for the Yucca project next year.

Golan told the Energy and Natural Resources Committee Tuesday that "the department continues to have an open mind on interim storage."

But he also said the administration lacks the authorization to proceed with an interim storage plan.