Nuclear Fuels
May 18, 2009

Yucca Mt. project targeted for 'orderly shutdown' in FY-10

BYLINE: Elaine Hiruo, Washington

SECTION: Pg. 11 Vol. 34 No. 10

LENGTH: 866 words

President Barack Obama made it clear in his budget request for fiscal 2010 that the country "needs a better solution" on the nuclear waste issue than DOE's proposed repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, the White House Office of Management and Budget said in its budget document "Terminations, Reductions and Savings."

The $197 million the administration is seeking for the program next fiscal year, which begins October 1, will allow for an "orderly shutdown" of the Yucca Mountain project while a blue-ribbon commission will receive $5 million to evaluate alternatives to a Yucca Mountain repository, Energy Secretary Steven Chu said at DOE's budget briefing May 7.

Names of potential commission members have been sent to the White House for review, Chu said, adding that he was hopeful a commission could complete its work within two years. Chu declined to say at the budget briefing how long the program might be in a coastdown mode before it is actually terminated.

The funding sought for the controversial program is roughly $90 million below what it received this fiscal year. Roughly $116 million, down from $180.3 million this fiscal year, of the budget request would support DOE work associated with NRC's review of its repository license application. The NRC's Atomic Safety and Licensing Boards, or ASLBs, will continue the hearing process, which a DOE budget document said would require a significant effort by DOE to provide technical, scientific, and legal support.

It is widely believed that the administration is allowing the licensing process to continue in order to avert a costly total breach of the spent fuel disposal contracts DOE signed with nuclear utilities in 1983.

Consideration of the license application also is required under the federal Nuclear Waste Policy Act.

A DOE budget document said that the management and integration of program activities would receive $10.7 million, less than half of this year's $26.2 million. Program direction would receive $70 million, down slightly from the $74.9 million it received this fiscal year. DOE said that a majority of that decrease would come from a reduction in contractor support, raising the possibility of additional layoffs.

"What comes after life support?" one nuclear industry source said when asked about the prospects the program could survive. Still, some appeared to wonder if a conceivable change in the political landscape down the road, in which Republicans regained control of the House and Senate, might revive it.

"This program has gotten so out of control it cannot be reformed and saved," said Bob Halstead, a spent fuel transportation specialist for the state of Nevada. Halstead said he believes the program "has to die before a new, good and realistic waste management program" can be established.

Nevada officials have fought the program for decades, asserting Yucca Mountain could not safely house highly radioactive waste. "Many of our contentions would have gone away if the site were good," Bruce Breslow, executive director of Nevada's nuclear waste agency, said last week of the state's 222 contentions that ASLBs admitted to the NRC licensing proceeding. Seismic faults run through the site and there are relatively young volcanoes nearby, he said in an interview.

"We've been through this before; there's nothing wrong with Yucca Mountain," said former Senator J. Bennett Johnston. Johnston, a former Democratic chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, was the chief architect of the 1987 amendments to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act that designated Yucca Mountain as the country's lone candidate for a high-level nuclear waste repository.

"They seem to have forgotten the process we went through in the 1980s on nuclear waste," Johnston said, referring to the plan to set up a blue-ribbon commission to evaluate alternatives. Everything from deep-geologic disposal, to deep-sea burial and shooting the waste into space was examined, as were several potential disposal sites, he said.

As expected there was no trace of the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership program in the DOE budget request. The program's research arm, the Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative, which is involved in research and development work into advanced reprocessing and fuel technologies, would take on a long-term R&D focus, DOE said, and was renamed as fuel cycle R&D. That program would receive $192 million, up from this year's $144 million. The long-term focus would push the feasibility of a closed fuel cycle in the US further out on the horizon.

DOE is seeking $559.4 million for the Uranium Enrichment Decontamination and Decommissioning Fund for the cleanup of facilities the government built decades ago in Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee to enrich uranium for Cold War nuclear weapons programs. Nuclear Energy Institute President and CEO Marvin Fertel said in a May 7 statement the industry is "appalled" by DOE's plan to reinstate the fund even though the nuclear industry already has paid the $2.25 billion it was required to pay under the Energy Policy Act of 1992. "The government itself," Fertel added, "has yet to meet its financial obligations under the 1992 statute."

Elaine Hiruo, Washington