Nuclear-waste disposal could cost $96B |

Nuclear-waste disposal could cost $96B

H. Josef Hebert / The Associated Press

WASHINGTON – Even if no new reactors are built, getting rid of the country’s nuclear waste will cost $96.2 billion and require a major expansion of the planned Nevada waste dump beyond limits imposed by Congress, the Energy Department said Tuesday.

The revised cost estimate for the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear-waste dump 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas came as the presumed Republican presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain, renewed his call for building as many as 45 new power reactors by 2030.

Such an expansion would require a waste-disposal program well beyond what is envisioned by the current Yucca Mountain project, which itself has been highly controversial.

The government now says the Yucca Mountain project in Nevada will cost $38.7 billion more than was anticipated in 2001 when the Energy Department estimated the life-cycle cost of the program at $57.5 billion.

Ward Sproat, the Energy Department official in charge of the federal nuclear-waste program, said $16 billion of that increase is pegged to inflation. The program also has become more expensive because Yucca will have to accept more waste than previously had been anticipated, since current reactors are being allowed to operate longer, he said.

Sproat said the department had crunched no numbers on how much nuclear-waste disposal would cost if there were a rush in reactor construction on the scale suggested by McCain.

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The Yucca cost estimates cover waste only from existing reactors as well as from the defense program. “If there is a significant increase, a major nuclear renaissance with a large number of new plants, a second repository … may be needed,” Sproat said in a conference call with reporters.

The $96.2 billion – in 2007 dollars not accounting for future inflation – includes $13.5 billion already spent on the Yucca project, $54.8 billion for construction and operation over 150 years, and closing costs anticipated in 2113. It assumes the site will begin accepting used reactor fuel in 2020 and continue accepting shipments for 50 years.

The Energy Department earlier this year submitted an application for a Yucca Mountain permit to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, with a decision expected in three to four years.

But the cost report Tuesday assumes that Yucca Mountain will have to accommodate far more waste – both commercial and defense – than stipulated in the NRC application and by Congress, which has limited the repository to 77,000 tons.

Sproat said the cost estimate assumes the repository will house as much as 122,000 tons of waste, of which 109,000 tons will be from the current fleet of commercial reactors. For that to happen, Congress will have to approve the expansion of the Yucca facility beyond 77,000 tons. Such an expansion would require additional storage tunnels but no aboveground expansion, Sproat said.

The Yucca project has been highly contentious from the start, with Nevada politicians vigorously opposing it.

The site’s future also may hinge on this November’s presidential election.

Democratic candidate Barack Obama has called the Yucca project a mistake and that other options should be considered, including temporary, interim storage of waste until a more permanent solution can be developed.

In contrast, McCain believes Yucca is a suitable location for the tons of used reactor fuel, some of which will remain highly radioactive for 1 million years.

Sproat acknowledged the cost of Yucca Mountain is significant.

“But you have to say compared to what. … The cost of doing nothing is a lot higher,” Sproat said. He had no estimate of what it would cost to leave used waste at reactor sites or at interim storage facilities.

Eventually the material would have to be moved somewhere, he said. “All you’re doing is … pushing the whole problem out into the future and significantly increasing the cost.”

Commercial power reactors have about 64,000 tons of used reactor fuel at power plants in 33 states awaiting shipment to Yucca Mountain, with the amount growing at the rate of 2,000 tons a year, according to the industry.

Energy Department: