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John McCain and Steven Chu on Yucca Mountain

McCain-testimony Here is a transcript of the testimony from yesterday’s hearing of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee. The intent of the hearing was to discuss energy R&D, and mostly concerned that issue, but with DOE Secretary Steven Chu present, several of the Senators let their displeasure known about the scaling back of Yucca Mountain. This is the exchange between John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Chu.

We pick up after Sen. McCain established that solar energy will not exceed providing 15% or so of electricity production by 2015.

Chu-testimonyMcCain: That means that clean coal and nuclear power are far more important than maybe some people appreciate today.

Chu: I agree with that in the short term.

McCain: Is it true that a Department of Energy spokeswoman told Bloomburg  [News] that President Obama and you, quote, have been emphatic that nuclear waste storage at Yucca Mountain is not an option, period.

Chu: That’s true.

McCain: That’s a true statement. So now we’re going to have spent nuclear fuel sitting around in pools all over America - also tell the nuclear power industry that we have no way of either reprocessing or storing spent nuclear fuel around America and we expect nuclear power to be an integral part of this nation’s energy future. What’s wrong with Yucca Mountain, Dr. Chu?

Chu: We have learned a lot more in the last 20-25 years since Yucca Mountain -

McCain: I know that. What is wrong with Yucca Mountain, Dr. Chu?

Chu: I think we can do a better job and - .

McCain: Where?

Chu: Going to your original question about what to do with the spent fuel, the nuclear regulatory agency has said that we can solidify the waste at the current sites and store it without risk to the environment. And so while we do that -

McCain: Has any nuclear power plants made plans to begin solidification of the nuclear waste?

Chu: Yes. There are solidification plans going on today.

McCain: There are plans going on? Are there any plans for reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel?

Chu: I support reprocessing research. I think it’s an important part of the nuclear -

McCain: Why would we need research when we know that the Europeans and the Japanese are already doing it in a safe and efficient fashion?

Chu: I believe the Europeans and the Japanese are doing it but they’re doing it that lends to a risk of nuclear proliferation. The Japanese have already said -

McCain: And you balance that risk of proliferation versus spent nuclear fuel sitting around in pools in nuclear power plants all over the country and telling industry that we may do some research on reprocessing.

Chu: Let’s separate the issues -

McCain: I don’t think they’re separable. I think they’re inextricably tied because it’s clear that industry today is not interested in construction of nuclear power plants because we have no place to store it and we have refused to adopt what is already a proven technology of reprocessing.

Chu: The interim storage of waste – the solidification of waste – is something we can do today. The NRC has said that it can be done safely. That buys us time to formulate a comprehensive plan in how we deal with the nuclear waste. The recycling which I think in the long term is very beneficial  - it has the potential for greatly reducing the amount of waste - is something that we have to press on. But the time scale of the recycling development is different - we have a couple of decades quite frankly in my opinion to figure that one out.

McCain: I couldn’t disagree more strongly, Doctor. But I certainly have the greatest respect and admiration for your work and your knowledge and background. Nuclear energy has got to be an integral and vital part of America’s energy future if we’re going to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And to say after 20 years and $9 billion spent on Yucca Mountain that there’s not an option, period, to me is a remarkable statement.

No comment. Sen. McCain did not move on to ask about clean coal, as his initial comment above might indicate; he did express disappointment with the cap-and-trade program as proposed by the Obama administration.

You can listen to the whole hearing here. Move the slider over to about the 55 minute mark to pick up the McCain-Chu exchange.

Senator John McCain and Energy Secretary Steven Chu.


Anonymous said…
This is your fault, Flanaghan. You supported Obama over McCain. Blame yourself.
Luke said…
"Solidification" of the "waste"? Last time I checked, that used fuel was already pretty solid material.
Mark Flanagan said…
To Luke -

See here for more on solidification -

To anonymouse - Investing a lot of yourself into a political choice is like putting too much salt in the stew. Might want to get a little roughage in there, a few healthy greens. Otherwise, you'll be living in November 2008 longer than your friends will tolerate. (<:
There's no logical reason to throw away spent fuel at Yucca Mountain. We're in an energy and global warming crisis. We need to reprocess this material and use it to produce clean energy.

Marcel Williams
Brian Mays said…
I have to agree with Luke here. This is very strange. Spent fuel from conventional nuclear reactors needs no "solidification." It's already solid to begin with, being primarily composed of metals and oxides.

Mark, your link to the Savannah River Site describes facilities that have nothing to do with spent nuclear fuel from commercial reactors. The Defense Waste Processing Facility, as its name suggests, is for vitrifying high-level liquid nuclear waste from military applications. The Saltstone Facility is for disposing of low-level liquid radioactive wastes.

Thus, Dr. Chu's testimony is somewhat disconcerting. I realize that there is a significant learning curve when it comes to getting up to speed on energy policy, and he is still very new to the job. But when Chu says, "Going to your original question about what to do with the spent fuel, the nuclear regulatory agency has said that we can solidify the waste at the current sites ... " it's clear that he doesn't yet know what he's talking about.

This makes me wonder how much of the decision to abandon Yucca Mountain was based on "science."
Anonymous said…
Is McCain the only politician in DC that has a clue about how commercial nuclear power works? I am already disappointed in Chu who is obviously an Obama yes man. These are extreme environmentalists at their best. The risk of radiological releases from spent nuclear fuel has increased greatly going forward thanks to their actions. If anyone dies in the future from these decisions, the blood is on their hands. That is all that I can say. It is just plain irresponsible.
David Bradish said…
The risk of radiological releases from spent nuclear fuel has increased greatly going forward thanks to their actions.

Where do you get this? Used fuel has been sitting at nuclear plant sites for decades and it’s a pretty-well established fact that it’s safe. If it’s not safe, I highly recommend you put together the facts and alert the NRC immediately because everyone is under the empirical assumption that used fuel is safe in dry casks and spent fuel pools. Unless we all missed something that you caught...
Finrod said…
""Solidification" of the "waste"? Last time I checked, that used fuel was already pretty solid material."

Perhaps he meant vitrification.
Brian Mays said…
I sure hope he didn't mean "vitrification"! That would write off any chances for recycling the fuel at some point in the future.

My guess is that he intended to say "dry-cask storage." But even then, saying "solidification" instead of "dry-cask storage" is a pretty embarrassing mistake for a guy who, so far, has largely been given the benefit of the doubt that he is knowledgeable about these issues.
Pete Wilson said…
To Brian Mays:

"This makes me wonder how much of the decision to abandon Yucca Mountain was based on science."

Little to none. The selection of Yucca Mountain to be the sole site for nuclear waste storage was a purely political decision.

Now, it appears, the announcement that Yucca Mountain is "no longer an option" is equally based in politics.
Brian Mays said…
Well, Pete, at least those politicians are consistent.
David Walters said…
No, Chu is right and McCain is playing the political shill for the industry. Chu is *exactly* right. Only a few cases has the pre-dry cask SNF been a hindrance or about to become a hindrance to continued operations of a NP.

There is no "rush" is correct. McCain is impatient, and with all due respect, he *doesn't* know what he's talking about. He thinks that without Yucca mountain, the industry can't expand. Chu counters basically saying we are good for 10 to 20 years, chill.

Having said all that the DOE HAS to get moving on reprocessing. Period. Now. If only because it solves a big political issue (as opposed to an engineering one).

Another Pete said…
There were good technical reasons for choosing Yucca Mountain. It was not a purely political decision. Yucca Mtn is located adjacent to the Nevada Test Site, which is already a little contaminated, radiologically speaking. Also, Yucca Mountain is in a hydrological basin that doesn't empty into any other water source. This area of Nevada is barren federal land with really no other use. How many other areas in the nation would qualify for that?

I am all in favor of reprocessing and there are other solutions which would work besides the current Yucca plan. If Yucca is so unacceptable of a location, then why hasn't Chu pulled the license application back from the NRC? Killing Yucca without really killing it is just wasting more time.

The first question out of the public's mouth when it comes to nuclear power is, "What about the waste?" "Why don't they know what to do with the waste?" is also a popular question. As long as politics continues to be played by the Obama administration on this issue, any new nuclear project will have problems with public acceptance.
Jason Ribeiro said…
I thought they meant vitrification when he mentioned solidification and I was right. Being that a few percentage points of the spent fuel is stuff that most people don't want, what would be the point of solidifying this material that is mostly U238? Not only is this wasteful, money and fuel wise, it's unnecessary.

I agree with David Walters to the extent that Yucca is not necessary. While this is true, there are many legal bindings that need to be undone before things can continue. Pulling the chain on Yucca has now become a leverage stick against the industry. This is good reason not to put all your eggs in one basket.

McCain wants recycling more than he wants Yucca so to deny that avenue with "we need to research..." or "Japan and Europe's method brings proliferation concerns..." is dodging the issue. Recycling for the United States, in the United States, is not a concern for proliferation. We already have nuclear weapons, who would be proliferating from a USA recycling program?
Ondrej Chvala said…
Dvid> "Chu is *exactly* right."

No he is not. I hope he was just *slightly wrong* by switching solidification and on-site dry-cask storage.
Pete Wilson said…
Another Pete said:

"If Yucca is so unacceptable of a location, then why hasn't Chu pulled the license application back from the NRC?"

Killing the project outright would invite lawsuits from electric utilities who have been guaranteed (under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act) a place to store spent fuel from their nuclear power plants.

is a link to a recent New York Times article on the subject.

Regarding the decision to site Yucca Mountain...

You are correct in that there were good technical reasons to select the site. However, the DECISION to choose Yucca Mountain was politically-based.
D. Kosloff said…
In a democratic republic all major government decisions should be politically based. There is nothing scientifically wrong with Yucca Mountain and Dr. Chu knows that. That is why he avoided answering the question.
D Kosloff said…
McCain: What is wrong with Yucca Mountain, Dr. Chu?

Dr. Chu avoided answering that question. That was a dishonest act. Dishonesty about nuclear power is an intentional policy of the Obama administration.
Anonymous said…
The last paragraphs of David Walters' and Another Pete's posts touch on the real issue.

It has nothing to do with the costs or risks of storing the waste for several more decades. Both are nelgible.

The issue is, can we afford to let the public continue to labor under the FALSE impression that "nobody has any idea of what to do with the waste" (i.e., that it is a serious, intractable problem)? Can we afford to just voluntarily let the anti-nukes keep their single most effective argument against nuclear for another 20 years?

Getting Yucca licensed solves this (political) problem. Why not license/open Yucca, store the fuel there for ~50 years while we develop advanced fuel cycle technologies, and then just pull it out. The cost of fuel handling/transport is negligible, and even Yucca itself only costs 0.1 cent/kW-hr, well worth it to solve this political problem). One final fact, of course, is that we will need at least one repository anyway, no matter what fuel cycle we go with, so what's the issue?

We don't need new nukes 20-30 years from now (i.e., "after we've solved the waste problem"). We need them now, desperately. I believe that leaving the nuclear waste question unanswered will make it harder, politically, to get new plants built. We can't afford to go back to the drawing board and kiss 20-30 years of effort goodbye.

Am I wrong about this preventing/reducing new nuclear plants? I sure hope so. So far, it doesn't seem to be stopping new projects. But we shouldn't tolerate any increased difficulty in building new nukes (in lieu of coal plants) over some quixotic quest for ever more perfect waste disposal options or fuel cycles.
D Kosloff said…
It is the intention of the Obama administration to have the public labor under the FALSE impression that "nobody has any idea of what to do with the waste". That has been the left-wing position for nuclear power in the Free World since at least 1975, when I was a left-wing anti-nuke. Obama doesn't know anything about nuclear power. Obama is just following left-wing dogma. Chu does know better, but he has sold out because he likes the power and prestige of his new job. Lenin had a descriptive term for people like Obama and Chu.
Anonymous said…
One thing that Pres. Obama and Dr. Chu don't seem to realize is that storing spent nuclear fuel at Yucca Mountain is the law of the land. Abandoning it will require Congress to pass a new law. In the meantime, utilities are successfully suing the DOE for not picking up their fuel starting in 1998. These lawsuits will continue and the taxpayers will have to continue to fund the settlements. Note that the payments to the utilities do not come out of the Nuclear Waste Fund; they come from a separate settlement fund.
Anonymous said…
I am french and I have been working all my carreer on nuclear energy. This exchange is quite amazing because Mr Chu seems to be amaizingly non competent on the subject. The fact is that sustainable development needs:
- reprocessing with recovering of a slightly enriched uranium and of plutonium to makes MOX fuel (mixed oxide U/Pu: you burn the Pu in pressurized water reactors and you store U238 for future breeders reactors. Note that you will burn your military Pu that way (agreement with Russia)
- Vitrification of fission product and transuranides(and only them): it is solid, safe, and last for ages (compared to decay time)
This glass containers are perfectly suitable for Yucca montain as they don't release radioactive products.
- later it will even be possible to separate and burn trans uranides
- US like France has a huge stock of depleted uranium whick will be used in breeder reactors (Generation IV): it represent fuels for thousands of years.
So all that is only politics and has nothing to see with technic
Note that Mr Blair had 7 years ago exactly the same point of view as Mr Obama today. And last year he admited that he was wrong and recommended to push nuclear again (as Mr Brown ans very recently Sweden, Italy).
Pleasqe move because your CO2 release figure is more than bad.
Jean-Pierre Perves
Jean-Pierre Perves said…
I am french and have had a full carreer in nuclear energy. My feeling is that Mr Chu does not know much about this technology or gives purely political anwers. Relying on french experience the right way is:
- to reprocess fuel elements to recover slightly enriched U and plutonium and separe fission products (nuclear ashes)
- makes MOX fuel elements (mixed oxide U/Pu to be burned in water reactors (PWR and BWR). Note that is the way adopted by US to burn more than 30t of military plutonium (in agreement with Russia which does the same)
- vitrification of fissions products (including eventually trans-uranides). The glass is stable for ages (compared to waste decay time)and should be compatible with Yucca mountain as it does not release radioactive waste, even in water.
- Later depleted uranium could be burned in breeders reactors (generation IV)as well as transuranides if they are separatly recovered. This depleted uranium stock (from enrichment plants and burned fuel elements)is huge in US as well as France and represent thousands of years of fuels for power plant.
All yhis is on the way in France and Japan.
Just remember that 8 years ago Mr Blair made exactly the same proposal as Mr Obama today: and 2 years ago he recognized thatr he was wrong and recommended to revive nuclear energy in UK. and Mr Brown has the same point of view. Very recently previous director of Greenpeace in UK gave the same advice and Sweden and Italy made the same move.
Its time for US politicians to look at this fied technicaly and not only politicaly as your performances concerning CO2 are extremely bat (twice France per capita)
Just go on to save the climate.
jean-Pierre Perves
skyler said…
Why are we investigating re-processing practices when it has been done in a nation like france, which is much more advanced when it comes to nuclear. We should be using already developed technology for reuse not questioning how we can dispose of nuclear waste.
Anonymous said…
Which is an easier and better target for terroists: (1) dozens of above ground storage facilities near urban centers, or (2) one military hardened deep geological repository out in the middle of nowhere? When I say radiological risk, I mean risk from terrorist attacks. Indian Point is very near NYC, and Salem / Hope Creek is very near Philadelphia. Safety and security is the desert in Nevada. Risky is scattered across the US.
Anonymous said…
"If Yucca is so unacceptable of a location, then why hasn't Chu pulled the license application back from the NRC?"

Because DOE is required by law to submit a license application for YMP, and NRC is required by law to review it within 3-4 years of submittal. Chu does not have the power to repeal legislation.
agentsteve said…
The decision to abandon Yucca Mountain is based on one thing and one thing only: the fact that Harry Reid's political survival depends on it. He's all but staked his reputation on sinking the project, and probably won't see another term if he fails. At this point, I doubt that he'd change his mind if Einstein and Jesus both showed up and told him that he was wrong
woolie said…
Chill, y'all. Chu and Obama are almost certainly going to be pushing hard for new nuclear. It's the only rational choice with heavy carbon pricing. But the politics of the Democratic Big Tent requires some level of political Kabuki to get this accomplished. And Obama is nothing if not a masterful dancer :)

You'd have reason to worry if Obama or Chu had ever said anything harshly critical of nuclear. They haven't.
friend2all said…
Spent Nuclear Fuel is too valuable to be Nuclear Waste

Spent Nuclear Fuel from US Light Water Reactors still has enormous energy value ( only 3% of the Uranium in typical fuel rods is actually burned - the remainder of the fuel ~ 96% is disposed of as "waste" but is in fact perfectly usable fuel in alternate technology reactors and is a tremendously valuable resource. We should use SNF that has accumulated from US LWRs to provide start-up fuel for new less waste generating Thorium Reactors. Thorium Molten Salt reactors can be started on spent nuclear fuel and then gradually converted over in the course of three decades to run pure Thorium nuclear fuel that produces only 1 part in 100 the amount of waste and 1 part in 1000 the long term radio-toxicity of waste. Thorium Molten Salt Reactors have dramatically higher fuel efficiency (>98%) and produce, almost exclusively, easier to handle fission products as waste that decay to the benign level of the natural background in ~350 years. Thorium is more abundant (by about 300%) than natural Uranium and 55000% more abundant than Uranium-235 which is the principle fissile fuel component in current fuel rods that is actually burned by current LWRs.

We should use Spent Nuclear Fuel to produce abundant less waste generating nuclear energy to become fully energy self sufficient and launch a nuclear renaissance based on improved Thorium Technology.
Anonymous said…
What if Dr. Chu knows that fission reactors are already "old" technology? If fission reactors will soon be replaced with fusion reactors, why invest more money in Yucca Mountain - a repository for fission reactor products?

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