Energy Daily

U.S. Should Rethink Yucca--Retiring NRC Commissioner

By Jeff Beattie

January 23, 2007

The United States may need "to go back to the beginning" in its efforts to build a national spent reactor fuel repository, and abandon the beleaguered Yucca Mountain project in Nevada in favor of a new repository plan at a different location, retiring Nuclear Regulatory Commission member Edward McGaffigan said Monday.

"It may be time to stop digging" at Yucca, said McGaffigan, explaining that he thought the project has been undermined by "bad law, bad regulatory policy, bad personnel policy...bad budget policy" and other problems "throughout its history."

"Realistically, we should probably be starting to look at new sites," said McGaffigan, the longest-serving NRC commissioner with more than 10 years of service. McGaffigan recently announced that he will leave NRC for health reasons as soon as President Bush finds a replacement.

Speaking at a press conference sponsored by Platts, McGaffigan spoke expansively about the challenges NRC faces--particularly given current federal budget constraints--as U.S. utilities consider building up to 29 new reactors in the coming years. The buzz of activity comes after a long period of relative dormancy for the U.S. nuclear industry, which has not ordered a new nuclear reactor since the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island.

In assessing the surge of interest, McGaffigan described a handful of merchant generator proposals to build new reactors as "among the most serious" of the proposed projects that he sees on the horizon.

But McGaffigan's most extensive comments were on how the nation should move ahead in finding a long-term solution for defense-related high-level waste and radioactive spent fuel rods currently building up at dozens of commercial reactor sites nationwide.

Broadly speaking, he noted that experts worldwide for years have generally agreed that geologic burial is the best way to manage spent fuel and said that developing those repositories is not impossible.

As examples, he cited Finland's progress in siting a national repository, and U.S. success years in ago in building the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), an underground disposal facility for transuranic waste in New Mexico.

McGaffigan also had warm praise for Edward "Ward" Sproat, director of the Energy Department's Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, which is responsible for developing Yucca. In Sproat and his colleagues, "DOE has the best people they have ever had running this program," McGaffigan said Monday.

But McGaffigan said DOE's efforts to develop Yucca have been badly hampered over the years by frequent changeover in Yucca leadership, inconsistent funding and ineffective legislative attempts to fix problems with the program, among other challenges.

Taken together, those types of problems are likely to continue delaying Yucca, McGaffigan said, noting that when he arrived at NRC in 1996 Yucca was scheduled to open in 2010.

"I arrived at the commission 14 years from the alleged opening date of Yucca, and I leave the commission 20 years from the alleged opening date," said McGaffigan, citing recent DOE projections Yucca could open between 2025 and 2027.

To take control of the spent fuel problem, McGaffigan said it might make sense to form a government corporation, whose leaders would be picked by a board of directors and would not need congressional approval. That would provide for more leadership stability over time, and insulate the leaders somewhat from political forces, he said.

McGaffigan described the plan as a "government-owned back-of-the-fuel-cycle corporation `a la TVA," referring to the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Former TVA Chairman Craven Crowell has also called for formation of a government corporation to manage U.S. spent fuel, McGaffigan noted.

McGaffigan said such a corporation could also assume responsibility for the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), the Bush administration's marquee nuclear recycling initiative.

Among other goals, GNEP is aimed at restarting spent fuel processing in the United States, a process that extracts elements of spent fuel and re-manufactures it into new fuel. Ideally, that also reduces the volume and toxicity of high-level waste that would need to be buried.

McGaffigan said reprocessing could help the nation manage its spent fuel once the underlying technologies are fully developed, but that "GNEP is not going to come in and save the day" in the near term.