Senator seeks to speed waste to Yucca
WASHINGTON – A Senate committee chairman said Wednesday that he wants to start shipping nuclear waste to Nevada’s Yucca Mountain in 2010, seven years ahead of the Bush administration’s schedule.
A bill by Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., would mandate construction of a surface storage facility at the Yucca Mountain site that could hold nuclear waste until the long-delayed underground dump is ready – not until 2017, at earliest, according to the current schedule.
The delays are costing the public because the Energy Department was obligated to start accepting waste from nuclear utilities beginning in 1998. More than 50,000 tons of the material is waiting at commercial reactors around the nation.
Domenici’s bill would seek to reduce that multibillion dollar liability by creating an aboveground facility that could receive high-level waste from the Defense Department starting in 2010 and spent fuel from civilian reactors the next year.
The aboveground facility would be licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission separately from the underground dump, which also still needs a license. The proposal requires the Energy Department to file for a permit for the aboveground facility at the same time it files its license application for the Yucca Mountain dump, and it gives the Nuclear Regulatory Commission 18 months to grant the aboveground permit.
Once that permit is granted, DOE could immediately begin to ship high-level defense waste. Commercial waste could only be shipped once the construction permit for Yucca Mountain is granted.
“Our nation needs nuclear waste and it will be managed safely both for current and future reactors,” said Domenici, who heads the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. “This bill will remove legal barriers that will allow DOE to meet its obligation to accept and store spent nuclear fuel as soon as possible.”
Jon Summers, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., rejected the bill as “another attempt to breathe life into a project that’s dying.”
“The dump is never going to open,” Summers said.
Domenici’s plan is the latest proposal in response to delays at Yucca Mountain, which has been plagued by funding shortfalls, controversies over the validity of scientific work, and political opposition and lawsuits from the state of Nevada and Nevada lawmakers. The dump site is about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
Domenici also wants to create interim storage facilities at various federal sites around the nation, a plan that is awaiting Senate approval. He envisions his plans working in coordination with an administration proposal to revive nuclear fuel reprocessing, which could reduce the amount of waste needing to be stored.
With Congress in its final legislative week, Domenici said he does not expect his new bill to advance until next year.
The bill contains other proposals meant to speed construction of the dump, some of which were part of Yucca Mountain legislation unveiled by the Bush administration in April.
Domenici’s bill would:
— Aim to ensure steady funding for Yucca Mountain by dedicating money in a special nuclear waste fund, which is paid for by utilities.
— Repeal a statutory limit that confines the dump to 70,000 metric tons of waste. The Energy Department has estimated the dump could hold 120,000 metric tons, and other estimates say it could hold eight times that.
— Give the Energy Department the authority to begin construction of some infrastructure and aboveground facilities as soon as environmental studies are completed.
— Establish federal control of land for a rail route to the site. Domenici aides said their understanding was that route would be the 319-mile Caliente Corridor that stretches from Caliente near the Utah border to Yucca Mountain. There has been some discussion recently of renewed government interest in an alternate route through the Walker River Paiute Tribe reservation in western Nevada.
— Establish permanent DOE control of 147,000 acres for the dump itself, land now controlled by the Bureau of Land Management, the Air Force and the Nevada Test Site.
The bill leaves out controversial elements of the Bush administration proposal which would have removed some requirements for environmental and other permits.
“The department strongly supports many of the provisions in his bill,” Energy Department spokesman Craig Stevens said in a statement. “The bill would move the ball forward in helping the federal government fulfill its obligations under the current law, and would help open Yucca Mountain as the nation’s permanent repository for spent nuclear fuel.”
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