Chronology of Key Political and Policy Developments Regarding The Yucca Mountain Repository Program

Chronology of Key Political and Policy Developments Regarding The Yucca Mountain Repository Program

January, 1983:

The Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA) of 1982 is signed into law by President Ronald Reagan. The Act embodies a number of key compromises that secure the support of environmentalists, industry, and states. It is a groundbreaking piece of legislation that seeks to foster a partnership between the federal government, states, and the affected public in siting repositories for the disposal of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive wastes. The Act provides for an objective, scientifically-based siting process for two repositories - one in the west and one in the eastern portion of the U.S. It guarantees state oversight of the federal program and provides a mechanism whereby a potential host state can disapprove of the ultimate siting decision if it believes that the decision is faulty (the state's disapproval could be overridden by a majority vote in both houses of Congress). It establishes a Nuclear Waste Fund, to be comprised of monies collected from a fee on nuclear-generated electricity, that would pay for all costs associated with disposal of spent fuel and high-level waste. The Act also requires that a repository and any interim storage site that might be identified must be licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and that the Environmental Protection Agency would set the health and safety standards by which a potential repository site would be judged.

Spring, 1983:

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) identifies nine sites in six states as potential sites for the first repository. DOE subsequently identifies locations in 17 states (principally in the eastern, southern, and northeastern sections of the country) for evaluation as possible second repository sites.

September, 1984:

Confidence in the site screening process nationwide is undermined when Energy Secretary Hodel, campaigning for Phil Gramm in Texas, says, "...I don't believe that the nuclear waste repository is going to be built in a state where there is strong opposition from the people and where you have powerful political representatives in the Nation's Capitol taking that position with the President...Because there is a provision in the statute for a monitored retrievable storage site it means to me that the Congress will not insist that any State that doesn't want it would have to take it."

Early in the implementation of the program, DOE was already using the siting issue for partisan political purposes and confirming the view that political strategy would guide its siting strategy.

December, 1984:

In promulgating the Guidelines for the Recommendation of Sites (10 CFR 960) as required by the NWPA, DOE establishes a system of screening to 3 sites (from the known 9) for site characterization that assured Yucca Mountain, Hanford, and one of the 7 salt sites would become Candidate sites, unless a disqualifying condition was found prior to selection of the 3 sites.

This approach was not required by the Act (Sec. 112 (a)), but was an elaborate strategy built into the screening process, regarding diversity of sites (960.3-1-1; 960.3-2-2-2; 960.3-2-3), designed to assure selection of Yucca Mountain, Hanford, and a salt site for site characterization.

This was an attempt to preserve sites in states perceived to be more vulnerable to DOE pressures and give a sense of objectivity to the more politically controversial selection of a salt site in one of four possible states -Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Utah.

December, 1984:

Following issuance of the Guidelines, DOE releases drafts of the Environmental Assessments for nomination of five sites which include the tentative selection of 3 sites for characterization. Yucca Mountain, Hanford, and Deaf Smith County, Texas were the sites named.

Guidelines were applied inconsistently in evaluating and comparing the sites to give legitimacy to the political objective of retaining the two federal sites at Yucca Mountain and Hanford.

December, 1985:

The EPA rule for management and disposal of high-level and transuranic wastes is promulgated (40 CFR 191). After close of the public comment period, DOE holds meetings with EPA staff seeking to assure that the regulations will not result in any obvious failure to comply by the three tentative sites selected for characterization.

This is one of many examples of DOE's imposing on "sister agencies" to further its own political and programmatic goals, even at the expense of the integrity of the targeted agency. In Nevada, this has been most prevalent with the Department of Interior relative to right-of-way and administrative land withdrawals of BLM Public Land, the National Park Service relative to State water appropriations, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service relative to the Endangered Species Act.

January, 1986:

DOE, in a draft report, names 12 potentially acceptable second repository sites in the northern midwest and east, after screening multiple sites in 17 central and eastern states.

A number of the sites retained were suspected at the time to be "political throw-aways" for the upcoming Congressional elections.

May, 1986:

DOE releases final Environmental Assessments for five first repository sites and names Yucca Mountain, Nevada, Hanford, Washington, and Deaf Smith County, Texas as the three Candidate First Repository Sites for site characterization.

DOE uses a recognized decision methodology to do a comparative evaluation of the sites, engages the National Academy of Sciences to confirm that the methodology has been properly applied (but specifically does not ask for an evaluation of whether the DOE's results are consistent with the application), redefines the methodology to be a "decision aiding methodology", and retains the three earlier-named tentative sites, inconsistent with the results of the analysis.

This was the culmination of the process to achieve DOE's original political objectives in selecting the three sites for first repository site characterization.

May, 1986:

In the face of intense public opposition and complaints from elected officials in the second repository states, the Secretary of Energy violates the regional equity intent of the NWPA and announces an indefinite postponement of the second repository siting program, leaving only the three Candidate first repository sites under consideration.

This was a unilateral decision on the part of the Secretary of Energy to violate the requirements of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act and was clearly driven by partisan political objectives associated with the upcoming Congressional elections. Congress was not asked by DOE to amend the law prior to announcement of this decision, for which DOE provided a number of debatable lines of reasoning.

June, 1987:

The high-level waste program Mission Plan Amendment is submitted to Congress containing the Secretary's decision to not pursue siting of a second repository, as required by the NWPA.

Based on a technicality of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, DOE could claim that Congress had ratified its second repository site selection decision if there was no Congressional action opposing the decision within 30 days of submittal of the Mission Plan Amendment. This was the culmination of a process set in motion by DOE to serve both its partisan political goals and to relieve itself of a very troublesome and controversial second repository siting program. Now DOE could concentrate its political and programmatic efforts on only three states which were effectively politically isolated because the other 47 states were safe from the potential burden of a high-level waste repository.

June, 1987:

Committees of jurisdiction in both the House and Senate recognize that DOE is not making effective progress in the waste program. The House considers a moratorium in the siting program and a reevaluation of DOE's implementation of the Act. The Senate considers a sequential site characterization process for the three Candidate sites.

In a hearing of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee where the DOE project managers for the three candidate sites discuss the potential suitability of the sites for repository development, the Yucca Mountain Project Manager, Don Vieth, states, "it is not conceivable to me that we would discover [during site characterization] something of a major nature that would cause us to change our mind about it [Yucca Mountain's suitability].

This statement is based on DOE's siting guidelines, NRC's repository licensing rule, and EPA's environmental protection standards for repositories. Vieth says estimated releases of radionuclides from Yucca Mountain "may be five orders of magnitude below a very conservative EPA standard." The other DOE Project Managers are cautious and circumspect in assessment of the suitability of the Hanford and Deaf Smith sites.

By so overstating its confidence in one of the three Candidate sites, DOE not only showed its support for the sequential approach, but further suggested to Congress its preference for a political decision regarding which site should receive priority attention. Nevada's political vulnerability in this process was obvious to all parties.

December, 1987:

Congress adopts the Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act which:

- names Yucca Mountain as the only site to be characterized, and removes the other two sites from further consideration;

- ends the screening process for a second repository site and sets further consideration of the need for a second repository for sometime between 2007 and 2010;

- prohibits studies of repository sites in granite;

- offers a financial benefits agreement to Nevada to permit site characterization and repository development at Yucca Mountain in exchange for Nevada's giving up its right to file a Notice of Disapproval with Congress if the site is found suitable;

- offers an equivalent type of benefits agreement to a candidate MRS host selected by DOE;

- establishes a linkage between siting and development of an MRS and progress toward licensing and development of a repository at Yucca Mountain;

- establishes the Office of the Nuclear Waste Negotiator to seek states or Indian tribes willing to volunteer to host a repository or MRS as an alternative to the DOE siting process, but Yucca Mountain would be retained as an alternative in NRC's repository license consideration.

The political isolation of Nevada, a single, remote state already hosting nuclear weapons testing and having a small Congressional delegation, along with the other provisions of the Amendments Act was seen by DOE to meet all its current political objectives and programmatic needs at the time. Internally, DOE operated on the premise that the 1987 Amendments Act selected Yucca Mountain for repository development and that the DOE's task is to do whatever necessary to assure that it becomes the repository. The following described actions by DOE demonstrate the belief that their charge is, in fact, to develop a repository at Yucca Mountain.

November, 1989:

In his program reassessment report to Congress, the Secretary begins a concerted effort that later appears in the Administration's proposed National Energy Strategy Act to preempt Nevada's environmental regulatory authority as it applies to Yucca Mountain because of claims that Nevada's abuse of its regulatory authority is obstructing progress at Yucca Mountain.

This was the initiation of DOE's political efforts to lay the blame for lack of progress at Yucca Mountain on the State of Nevada and shield itself from charges of management inadequacies. Later it would blame Congress for failure to provide adequate funding, and pursue an assault on the NRC and EPA license regulations for causing delays and cost escalations by being inflexible, overly stringent, and not sufficiently sensitive to the conditions of the Yucca Mountain site.

April, 1991:

In testimony to the U.S. Senate, GAO reports that, even if DOE had received permits from Nevada earlier, it is not prepared to begin new site characterization work at Yucca Mountain until March, 1991, and that DOE itself is responsible for most of the delay in initiating new work since 1988. DOE then contends, as it continues to do today, that preemption of Nevada's authority is necessary "insurance" so Nevada cannot obstruct the project in the future.

This made it clear that DOE would go to any lengths, including misleading and deceiving Congress, to achieve its self-proclaimed programmatic purposes, its political objective of further isolating Nevada, and its self-protection from criticism by Congress and the nuclear industry.

October, 1991:

DOE abandons its earlier Exploratory Shaft Facility (ESF) design in favor of a new design for an underground Exploratory Studies Facility. Because of its scale and emphasis on construction to repository dimensions, and lesser emphasis on conducting tests of site suitability, the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board characterizes the plan as being more one of beginning repository construction than for the collecting of data that could give early indications of whether the site should be disqualified.

Despite its statements to the contrary, DOE actions indicate its belief that the 1987 Amendments Act established the suitability of Yucca Mountain, and the objective now is to get a license from NRC and build and operate a repository on schedule and within the projected budget.

November, 1991:

The confidential document describing the nuclear industry's Nevada Initiative is revealed to the public. It explains the rationale and actions intended to overpower Nevada's opposition to the Yucca Mountain project. Included in the document is the statement that the industry has established a "political alliance" with DOE regarding the project, and it points out that project scientists are being trained to put the best face on the project and the safety of a Yucca Mountain repository to the public in Nevada.

Despite claims to the contrary by DOE, the nuclear industry's public relations and political disruption campaign is a welcome addition to DOE's strategy for building a repository at Yucca Mountain. Furthermore, while DOE is proclaiming the objectivity of its "world class" scientists and the investigation of Yucca Mountain, nuclear industry public relations experts are teaching the scientists how to convince the public of the safety of the site for a repository.

January, 1992:

DOE issues, in the form of a contractor report, an Early Site Suitability Evaluation for Yucca Mountain that finds that there are no disqualifying factors present, yet fails to evaluate the question of whether available information and data are sufficient to make judgments of the suitability or unsuitability of the site. Furthermore, in examining whether the potential emissions of Carbon-14 will meet the EPA release standards, the report concludes that the standard is inappropriate, rather than expressing the doubts about compliance raised by the evaluation.

In order to justify continuing the site characterization program at Yucca Mountain, which is intended to provide the basis for a pro-forma suitability determination and then, more importantly, a license application, the DOE's site selection guidelines were "interpreted" and the study executed in a manner that confirmed the continued assumption of the site's suitability.

March, 1992:

DOE testifies to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that the overly stringent NRC and EPA repository regulations are causing delay and greatly escalating costs in the Yucca Mountain program, implying that program success depends upon relief either from the NRC and EPA or the Congress.

This is DOE's latest attempt to lay the blame for ongoing delays and large cost escalations. Experienced nuclear industry analysts, while wanting to ease the way for the program, at the same time do not agree that success depends upon regulatory revision, nor does the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board.

October, 1992:

During 1991 and 1992, DOE applies considerable effort, both directly and indirectly, to influence the EPA's process of repromulgation of its repository standards. The effort is largely to arrive at standards that better accommodate known or expected conditions and uncertainties regarding the Yucca Mountain site and impart DOE's beliefs regarding appropriate regulatory approaches to resolving problems related to the Yucca Mountain site's compliance. There is even an effort to enlist the support of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the National Academy of Sciences, and the EPA Science Advisory Board for DOE's regulatory approaches.

When it becomes clear that regulatory relief satisfactory to DOE is not forthcoming from the NRC and EPA, Congress adopts, without hearing, Section 801 of the Energy Policy Act of 1992, which instructs EPA to establish new site-specific regulations for Yucca Mountain based on "reasonable" safety standards recommended by the National Academy of Sciences. The NRC is also instructed to conform its repository licensing requirements to these new standards which, based on the requirements of the Energy Policy Act, will be less stringent in their protection of health and safety.

Having failed in the familiar "sister agency" approach, DOE once again demonstrated its reliance on the political process to solve its current problems. The operative principle is that if the DOE's desired program or the site can't meet the rules, rather than revising the program or questioning the merit of the site, political muscle should be applied to change the rules. The history of this program attests to both the short-term success and shortsightedness of this approach.

December, 1992:

The Secretary's announcement that the efforts of the Negotiator to provide an MRS site by 1998 have failed and that DOE has a new strategy for beginning waste acceptance by then to meet the contractual obligation with the utilities undermines the credibility of the Negotiator and DOE regarding a volunteer siting process. Further, by stating that DOE can establish an MRS on a DOE defense nuclear facility or a Department of Defense facility, or even at a licensed reactor site, DOE indicates it was ready to undertake a "forced siting" process, once again simply in order to meet its schedule.

This is yet another example of a sudden redirection of the program that requires changing the rules to meet the needs whenever it is most expedient to the political goals of DOE.

January, 1993:

DOE begins excavation of the pad and high wall (working face) for construction of the north portal (ramp entrance) to the underground Exploratory Studies Facility (ESF). This is planned to be constructed to specifications such that it can later be used as the waste emplacement entrance to the repository. The Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board believes that it is an unnecessary and imprudent expenditure of money and time to construct this entrance to repository specifications and scale for purposes of site characterization.

This marked the beginning of ESF and repository construction at Yucca Mountain, despite the Act's Restriction (Sec.113(c)) of site characterization expenditures to those "necessary to provide data required for evaluation of the suitability of such site for an [NRC license] application..."

This decision to begin construction also ignored the Sec. 801 (Energy Policy Act of 1992) mandate for new EPA standards and revision of NRC's repository license rules. Currently there is no EPA rule, and the substance of the NRC rule revision (due in three years) cannot be known. Without known rules, construction is premature because a) it may interfere with other yet to be known tests needed for site characterization; and b) repository specifications may change with new NRC licensing rules.

January, 1993:

The Secretary's announcement of a new repository site characterization and development strategy, involving staged licensing by the NRC and early emplacement of waste represents a vast departure from existing nuclear waste policy and requires the NRC to significantly revise its regulatory approach. It overrides the statutory intent of objective scientific site evaluation to determine suitability to isolate waste, and it subverts the NRC's licensing process.

This may be the boldest proposal yet by DOE to assure that Nevada is politically co-opted, and Yucca Mountain is developed as a repository with the least possible intervention or regulatory oversight. It not only required that Congress change its laws, but demanded that NRC compromise its regulatory approach and standards. Furthermore, it even ignored the regulatory revision mandated just the past October, which DOE said was so necessary to the program's success.

Winter, 1994:

Sen. Bennett Johnston (LA) introduces a bill into the Senate that would revamp the HLW program by providing for interim storage at the Nevada Test Site, weakening the radiation release standards for Yucca Mountain, and accelerating the timetable for DOE to take waste for storage. The bill stalls in committee as Republicans take control of the Senate.

Spring, 1995:

HR1020 is introduced into the House of Representatives by Rep. Fred Upton. The bill authorizes interim storage at the Nevada Test Site beginning in 1998. It continues the Yucca Mountain project, but at the lowest priority, behind the interim storage facility (ISF) and construction of a rail spur. HR1020 is reported out of committee, but bogs down when it becomes known that the bill would exceed budget caps by a considerable amount, costing the taxpayer some $4 billion over four years. The bill remains stalled in the House.

Fall, 1995:

Sen. Larry Craig (R-ID) introduces S1271 which mirrors some aspects of the Johnston legislation, but sets 1998 as a date certain for accepting waste at an ISF at the Nevada Test Site. S1271 also sets lower release standards for an ISF and a repository and exempts DOE from all state and federal laws and regulation except S1271, the Atomic Energy Act, the Energy Policy Act of 1982, and those sections of NEPA deemed operative in S1271. The Craig bill is immediately bogged down in committee, and President Clinton threatens to veto any legislation that names Nevada (or any other state) as an interim storage site before the location for a permanent facility is known.

Winter, 1995:

Sen. Murkowski, Chair of the Senate Energy Committee, holds a mark-up on S1271 and replaces the entire bill with a revised version. The revision keeps the same designation (S1271) and many of the provisions of the original. The date for an ISF to operate is changed to January 1999, and the rail spur is replaced with an intermodal heavy haul system located in Caliente, NV. The bill allows DOE to deal with Caliente and Lincoln County without any provision for involvement of the State or other counties. The bill also exempts DOE from state and federal laws and regulations in the same way as S1271. By April, 1996, the bill is passed out of committee and awaits floor action. The Congressional Budget Office costs the bill at over $3 billion over 4 years, which poses a problem for meeting congressional budget targets. In addition, the President threatens to veto the measure if it is passed by Congress.

July, 1996

With S1271 bogged down in the Senate, nuclear industry lobbyists apply pressure to Senate supporters to move the legislation before the end of the Congressional session. The new Senate Majority Leader agrees to a parliamentary maneuver that allows a new bill, S1936, to be introduced directly to the floor of the Senate, without committee action or debate. S1936 contains the essential interim storage and related provisions of S1271, but moves the date for acceptance of spent fuel at the interim facility from January, 1999 to November, 1999. The bill names the Nevada Test Site as the location of the ISF, preempts state and local environmental, health, and safety laws, legislates a radiation exposure standard that permits between 4 and 20 times higher doses of radiation from a Yucca Mountain repository than that permitted anywhere else, and establishes interim storage - rather than geologic disposal - as the priority for the nation's nuclear waste program.


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