Tuesday, June 29, 2010

NRC Panel Denies Request To End Yucca Mountain

Nuclear Regulatory Commission's Atomic Safety and Licensing Board (ASLB) has denied the request by the Department of Energy to withdraw its licence application for the nuclear-waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

From the Associated Press:

Energy Secretary Steven Chu doesn't have the authority to pull the plug on a process that Congress started when it passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act in 1982, the NRC Atomic Safety and Licensing Board said in a 47-page order issued in Rockville, Md.

"Congress directed both that DOE file the application ... and that the NRC consider the application and issue a final, merits-based decision," the panel said. It said letting the department "single-handedly derail" the process would be "contrary to congressional intent."

Needless to say, the Energy Secretary Steven Chu and the Obama administration—which announced in March that it would withdraw the application—disagree with the ASLB's finding, and Energy Department officials have indicated that they will appeal the decision.

This ruling is not good news for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev), a longtime foe of the Nevada repository, who is facing a heavily contested election this year for a fifth term in the Senate. Nevertheless, Reid remains undaunted, stating that "the full commission will ... make the final decision." The commission is currently chaired by Reid's former staffer, Gregory Jaczko, who was appointed to this position by President Obama last year.

The fate of the motion to withdraw the license application is particularly important because the Department of Energy, under Secretary Chu, has filed the motion "with prejudice." This means that, if the motion is accepted, the same application cannot be resubmitted by another administration.

In spite of this decision, however, the resurrection of the Yucca Mountain repository is far from assured. The project's funding was zeroed out of the President's budget, and earlier this year, President Obama appointed a commission to recommend alternatives for this particular geological repository.

The DOE motion to withdraw is opposed by several groups, including the states of Washington and South Carolina. However, Senator James Inhofe (R-Okla) appears to want the last word on the politics of the situation:

"DOE Secretary Chu has given no reason for the NRC to cease its safety review other than stating that Yucca Mountain is no longer 'a workable option,'" Inhofe said in a statement. "While such comments may serve a political purpose, I'm glad the (NRC panel) has chosen to base its decision on the law."

22 comments:

Pronuke said...

Now to the next stage in the saga. The U.S. needs a better approach to managing used fuel than putting 63,000 metric tons into a hole in the ground in Southern Nevada, and then searching for another hole in the ground on the East coast to put more used fuel into. In the end, Congress will need to step up and fix the Nuclear Waste Policy Act.

SteveK9 said...

The long-term fix will take a while --- breeders of one sort or another and storage of fission products for a few hundred years. In the meantime there is still plenty of room for surface storage. It's probably better than wasting money on a (very) expensive hole in the ground.

Anonymous said...

In the end, Congress will need to step up and fix the Nuclear Waste Policy Act.

Until they do, the NWPA as it is now written is still the intent of Congress and the law of the land. The DOE does not have the Constitutional authority to unilaterally abrogate a law passed by Congress. Our tripartite system of government and the principle of separation of powers must have meaning in a realistic sense, or the whole system collapses. Political expediency should never be the basis for attempting to subvert Constitutional principles.

gmax137 said...

"Political expediency should never be the basis for attempting to subvert Constitutional principles."

What other motivation has there ever been for subverting those principles?

Marcel F. Williams said...

Why throw away probably the most valuable future energy resource on Earth?

50 years from now, people are going to laugh at their grandparents and great grandparents who once referred to spent fuel as-- nuclear waste.

Pete said...

Everyone seems to be forgetting the crux of the matter. The point is not whether Yucca Mountain is or isn't a good location or a safe location or even a good idea. The issue is:

Does the DOE have the authority to pull the Yucca Mountain license application?

The panel of judges determined that the answer to this question is NO.

Without revising the NWPA, the DOE is obliged by law to continue with the license application process.

It's really that simple, folks.

Anonymous said...

It is that simple, I agree. Congress passed the law. Under the Constitution, the Executive has to carry out (execute) that law. The Executive Branch has no authority on its own to re-write any laws. Lawmaking is reserved for the Legislative. Nor does the Executive have the authority to interpret those laws. That is reserved for the Judiciary. Right now the law that is on the books says the DoE must pursue development and eventual operation of a national waste repository, and Yucca Mountain is it. Until Congress (not the DOE) changes that, it has to be that way. If it isn't, then the Constitutional Republic based on the rule of law no longer functions.

Rod Adams said...

The law also once said that the DOE was required to start removing fuel from nuclear plant sites by 1998. That never happened either.

Under current law, it is entirely possible for the NRC to fritter away hundreds of thousands of valuable staff hours and deplete a significant portion of the Nuclear Waste Fund and still not end up with a completed license process.

I have spent my professional life defending the Constitution and supporting the concept of separation of powers and the tripartite form of government with its checks and balances. In this case, it seems that the most useful course of action would be for the industry to lobby its congressmen to change the law and allow Yucca Mountain to die away. Unfortunately there are too many people in the industry who see what I think of as a waste of money as a great revenue source.

Anonymous said...

Well, as Pete said, regardless of whether or not Yucca Mountain and once-through fuel use is a good idea, our system of government depends on the rule of law and following an established legal process. We simply can't have one branch of government deciding on its own to go its separate way in defiance of the Constitutionally-established legality. The system simply isn't viable if this occurs. It's no different than individual citizens simply deciding that they won't follow any established rules. What would happen to us if on our own we decided that the IRS had no authority to collect income taxes from us? We'd be in the slammer in record time. But if enough of us do it the system will collapse. Now, depending on the situation, maybe this would be a good thing in the long run, maybe not. But chaos and anarchy generally have deleterious effects on the general populace.

The defiance of Constitutional authority is the larger problem. If that isn't remedied, it will do no good to lobby Congress to change the NWPA. Once the precedent is established, there would be nothing to stop another Executive from simply going its own way if it decided the amended NWPA didn't fit its political agenda.

Brian Mays said...

"The law also once said that the DOE was required to start removing fuel from nuclear plant sites by 1998. That never happened either."

Yes, the DOE is in violation of the law, which is why the government has been sued by utilities to recover the fees that they have paid and which is why the government has lost these lawsuits.

Nevertheless, there's a huge difference between being in violation of a legal obligation to "dispose of the high-level radioactive waste or spent nuclear fuel ... beginning not later than January 31, 1998" because the required repository has not been built and wilfully flaunting the law for cynical political reasons.

In any case, two wrongs do not make a right.

"Under current law, it is entirely possible for the NRC to fritter away hundreds of thousands of valuable staff hours and deplete a significant portion of the Nuclear Waste Fund and still not end up with a completed license process."

Under current law, the license process will be complete in four years or less. The NRC has a deadline for when it must issue a final decision approving or disapproving the application.

The argument that pulling the license application now will save money is a poor one indeed, since the vast majority of the money required to license the repository has already been spent. A substantial amount of additional effort (beyond what would normally be expected) has gone into the license application of Yucca Mountain in anticipation of the deadline imposed on the review process.

"Unfortunately there are too many people in the industry who see what I think of as a waste of money as a great revenue source."

With this type of thinking, one could equally speculate that the plan to withdraw the license was the result of a conspiracy of dry-cask manufacturers. ;-)

The "industry" will make money no matter what is done with the used fuel and other waste material. If there is no geological repository to work on, then there will be money to be made dealing with licensing issues of over-crowded spent fuel pools, and there will be money to be made designing, licensing, and building dry cask storage systems.

What you think of as a "waste of money," others think of as a solution to one of nuclear power's biggest political problems: what is to be done with the "waste." Simply opening the repository will end moratoriums on new nuclear plants in several states all at once. It's certainly better than the current administration's policy of just kicking the can down the road.

Marcel F. Williams said...

The solution is for the Federal government to move spent fuel cask to temporary Federally managed above ground repositories until the spent fuel is either reprocessed or utilized a few decades later by the next generation of nuclear reactors than can run on spent fuel and depleted uranium.

The Federal government has inherited an energy gold mind that might even be used someday to pay off our titanic Federal debt. The Federal government should be thankful that they own this stuff and that private industry is actually paying them to take it off their hands!

Anonymous said...

I'm totally with Brian on this one.

The public will not be convinced that "we know what to do with the waste" until a repository is licensed. This has always been the anti's stongest argument by far, and abandoning Yucca will allow them to retain this argument for several more decades.

This is having a measurable chilling effect on new nuclear, the specific, tangible example given by Brian (i.e., state moratoriums) being just one example. It definitely increases the level of resistance.

Arguments about throwing away the fuel are irrelevant, since the fuel is completely retrievable. It's just a matter of the "wasted money" building and loading the repository, only to take it back out again. To that, all I have to say is that I'm sure the industry would agree that a mere 0.1 cent/kW-hr cost is well worth the benefit of deflating what has always been the strongest argument against nuclear.

Getting a license would be very useful even if we decide to reprocess, and even if we never decide to use the repository. A licensed repository still demonstrates that we have an acceptable long-term waste solution, thus largely defeating arguments that the waste is an intractable problem.

Jim Hopf

Pete said...

Marcel F. Williams said:
The solution is for the Federal government to move spent fuel cask to temporary Federally managed above ground repositories until the spent fuel is either reprocessed or utilized a few decades later...

Perhaps that will be the solution, Marcel -- but only after one of the two following events occurs:

1. Congress revises the NWPA to exclude Yucca Mountain as the country's nuclear repository, or

2. The NRC completes its review of the Yucca Mountain license application and determines the site to be unfit.

Anonymous said...

Congress will not act to change the NWPA. There are not enough votes to kill Yucca in the Senate, just like there are not enough votes to pass cap and trade.

However, DoE can continue its slow walking of meeting the law and drag their feet on to eternity. Inaction by DoE means storage at the site. Storage at the site is what Harry Reid and his prior science advisor, Jaczko, want.

I hate to say it, but we need more lawyers in the room to hammer on the DoE and the administration. We need some accountability.

Rod Adams said...

My opinion - and it is strictly my opinion - is that a licensed repository will not change any of the arguments being made by the people who oppose nuclear energy.

Many of them WANT us to continue in our present course - not building any new nuclear plants and not reusing slightly used nuclear fuel - because they LIKE selling fossil fuels. Higher prices for energy simply mean that they make even more money and gain even more control over all of the rest of us.

Some of the people that like this course of action operate large fleets of existing nuclear power plants.

I am not talking about millions or even billions of dollars here - but tens to hundreds of billions of dollars every single year of delay.

Having a licensed repository has not stopped the protests in Germany and it will not stop the protests here. Heck, take a look at what is happening in Vermont, New York and New Jersey where licensed nuclear power plants have been under severe attack.

Some people like to point to the cost of new nuclear power plants and say that is the anti's strongest argument against expansion. If that is the case - why is there such a strong push to shut down already built and operating nuclear plants?

No - opposition will not ever disappear. Following a course of action simply because it is the current law indicates a forgetfulness - Yucca Mountain has not always been the law. If the law can be written by humans it can be changed by humans.

I agree that it cannot be changed by simple executive action, but it can and should be changed because it is dumb to spend tens of billions to move valuable material from place to place, especially when that movement will provide even more opportunity for opposition action.

Brian Mays said...

Er ... the last time that I checked, Germany had no repository that is licensed to accept high-level radioactive material. Has one been licensed recently that I don't know about?

But seriously, who really expects one repository to end all opposition to nuclear power?! That's a silly argument, don't you think? There will always be irrational people who will not take the time or effort to learn about and understand the issue that they protest, just as there will always be that guy in a sandwich board on the street corner proclaiming that the world will end tomorrow.

When tomorrow comes, these folks just repeat the same tune, usually without skipping a beat. Don't expect reality to intrude into their world anytime soon.

Sorry, Rod, but I think that you need to step off of your soapbox long enough to take a look at the big picture. If the NWPA were repealed by Congress tomorrow, what would change? Pretty much nothing. Any kind of reprocessing would take years to bring online. Actinide-burning reactors would take even longer. Either one would have to go through a tortuous licensing process before it could be built and operated -- much like a geological repository. A world without Yucca Mountain looks very much like a world with Yucca Mountain, except that after Yucca Mountain is opened, the government will be sued a lot less for breaking its promises.

Following a course of action simply because it is the current law is just a part of being a law-abiding member of society. The alternative is to become a criminal. You and I don't get to pick and choose the laws that we want to follow and neither does the President and neither does the Secretary of Energy.

Surely, as a commissioned officer in the US Navy, you should know that your employer has been moving valuable material (i.e., radioactive fuel) from place to place for about a half a century now. Transporting this stuff is not exactly rocket science. It has been done before, very successfully, and it is certainly possible to do it again. I fail to see the problem.

I think that we can agree that the majority of material will eventually need to be removed from its current location. I don't think that anyone expects that a reprocessing center will spring up at each of the 65 currently operating commercial nuclear plants in the US. Thus, some kind of shipping will be required. Considering that nothing can be done with this material for years -- perhaps decades -- why is consolidation such a bad idea? After all, the US consolidates a substantial amount of its gold reserves at Fort Knox. Is energy less important than gold? I don't think so -- not today.

Finally, let's get back to reality. Do you really think that the political will exists in Congress to reverse the NWPA? Unless you do, the point is moot.

Anonymous said...

A licensed repository will not stop all opposition, but it will reduce it. Everyone knows nothing will move the dedicated anti-nukes. If one argues that a repository is pointless because it does not stop all opposition, then the same argument would apply to all efforts, including public outreach, or blogging.....

The point of all these activities is to reach the much larger population that is reachable, or even on the fence. For many, perhaps most, of these people, the waste issue is the biggest argument against nuclear. The fact that all of the state moratoria use the waste issue as the justification, and even state that plants will be allowed once it is resoved, is extremely telling in this regard. Killing the moratoria, by itself, is huge.

Although Rod didn't strictly say it (in his 2nd paragraph), not reusing "slightly used fuel" is not in any way holding nuclear back in this country. It hasn't resulted in any reduction in nuclear use (and corresponding increase in fossil fuel use). High capital costs (due to an unlevel regulatory playing field), along with public opposition that is, in part, due to lack of a repository, is what's responsible for holding nuclear back.

As for shipping fuel from place to place, all closed fuel cycle schemes I'm aware of involve more shipments of fuel (between various places), not less. Finally, there is the fact that a repository is still needed (under any scheme), and it probably won't be significantly cheaper than Yucca. The one important thing that (eventual) reprocessing offers is that it avoids multiple repositories. For that reason alone, we should do it (decades from now).

Jim Hopf

Rod Adams said...

In case anyone is still following this thread, I want to clarify my comment about "moving valuable material from place to place."

I am not against shipping material and know full well that we can do it safely. I also know that we do it all the time.

My concern is more about adding cost without any return. When I was running a manufacturing operation, I learned that simply moving ones inventory around keep adding cost to that inventory, put it at risk of damage, and could eventually make it have a high enough basis cost that a sale at a competitive price would not result in a positive profit margin.

The overall cost of dry storage on site should be less than packaging the material into licensed, one time use containers and transporting it just about as many ton miles as possible from the currently existing nuclear plants in the US. If you eventually want to reuse the material, it does not make any sense to go through the cost of that operation only to have to do it again when you want to retrieve the material from the repository.

Brian made a reasonable point when he said that it is unlikely that any recycling center would be built at the site of an operating nuclear plant. However, there are several good sites for such a facility that are pretty darned close to operating nuclear plants - both Oak Ridge and Savannah River, for example have active groups that are promoting the idea of building recycling facilities.

Just imagine if you ship all of the used fuel from South Carolina, where half of the electricity has been produced by nuclear energy for several decades - out to Nevada. A couple of decades from now, you might want to ship it all back.

That is the kind of movement of stuff from place to place - without any value added - that concerns me.

Remember - the shipments of used fuel are going to be pretty costly shipments and will require a large quantity of security personnel along nearly every mile of the trip.

Brian Mays said...

Rod, your concerns about cost certainly are valid, and they have been taken into account. This is why recent OCRWM work related to Yucca Mountain has focused on the development of a transport, aging, and disposal (TAD) system that is intended to simplify the design, licensing, construction, and operation of the surface facilities at Yucca Mountain.

This canister system would be used for at-reactor storage of commercial used fuel, transportation of the material to the repository, aging of the fuel (i.e., letting the hot, short-lived isotopes decay away), and eventually disposal of the material in the mountain. If energy policy in the US changes, at some time in the future, and the used fuel is destined for recycling, then the TAD can be used to transport the fuel to the recycling center. If energy policy doesn't change -- or even worse, the nutty "Greens" gain control and shut down nuclear power altogether, heaven forbid -- then the material is ready for disposal.

So this is a system that would standardize the dry-cask storage that is currently being used at reactors sites around the country, but unlike current systems, would be designed to transport the material to Yucca Mountain or wherever it needs to go. Sounds pretty good to me.

Bill said...

Jim Hopf: "As for shipping fuel from place to place, all closed fuel cycle schemes I'm aware of involve more shipments of fuel (between various places), not less."

I don't think so; IFRs and LFTRs would do most or all reprocessing on-site, shipping fertile fuel in and fission products out.

Anonymous said...

As you say, Bill, fission products still have to be shipped to a repository. Thus, at least as many shipments as once through. Probably more. Count me as skeptical that economics will favor on-site reprocessing, vs. a central facility, no matter what type of reactor is used.

Also, when I say "closed-cycle scheme" I mean a full scheme that includes addressing all the spent LWR fuel that has been, and will be created in the coming decades. All that fuel will have to be shipped somewhere. Then some final waste form (fission products, ideally) will have to be shipped to a final repository. Final result; more shipments.

Anyway, I'm not putting up shipments as a reason to go once through. It's just not a reason not to go once through.

Jim Hopf

Anonymous said...

Rod,

Storage and transportation of used fuel (casks, etc..) is my specific field. I've been involved with studies that look at overall costs of various fuel management options.

Once through would be cheapest, if you can still get by with one repository (due to the high cost of reprocessing). I'd say multiple repositories is much more expensive, economically and politically, which is why I favor eventual reprocessing.

As for the "wasted cost" of sending fuel to Yucca then pulling it back out for reprocessing, the main cost is the repository itself, as opposed to the shipments. Shipping cask costs are minor, since they can be used again and again. Extra shipping miles (we're not talking about extra shipments) would add some to the cost, but not much.

The main point, however, is that all these costs are minor in the grand scheme of things. The whole program costs 0.1 cents/kW-hr, so any "wasted cost" is no more than that. My overall take on this whole thing was given in my earlier post. That is, is it worth 0.1 cents/kW-hr to mostly take away the anti's best argument with the general public, and measurably reduce political opposition to nuclear. I know what my answer is.

Jim Hopf