Thursday, May 19, 2011

GAO Cites Missteps in DOE's Hasty Termination of Yucca Mountain Project

A report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the Department of Energy’s expedited termination of the Yucca Mountain repository project “did not consistently follow federal policy and guidance for planning or assessing the risks of the shutdown” and showed lax attention to government procedures for disposing of federal property.

The report was requested by Reps. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), Joe Barton (R-Texas), Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) and Greg Walden (R-Ore.), who asked GAO to determine, among other things, the basis of DOE’s action. Here’s what GAO found:

DOE’s decision to terminate the Yucca Mountain repository program was made for policy reasons, not technical or safety reasons.
The acting principal deputy director of the [Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management] explained Energy Secretary Steven Chu’s thinking this way:
[He said] that the secretary’s decision was based on a proposed change of department policy. … He did not, however, cite any technical concerns or safety issues related to the Yucca Mountain repository. [He] explained that the secretary believes there are better solutions that can achieve a broader national consensus to the nation’s spent fuel and nuclear waste storage needs than Yucca Mountain, although he did not cite any.
The National Academy of Sciences and international science experts continue to believe geologic disposal is the best solution for long-term disposal of nuclear waste, GAO said.

Meanwhile, DOE has spent nearly $15 billion since 1983 to evaluate potential nuclear waste repository sites, mostly to evaluate the Yucca Mountain site in more depth and prepare a license application for it. About 65 percent of this expenditure, or about $9.5 billion, came from the Nuclear Waste Fund. In return for that investment, U.S. taxpayers got a very large, empty hole under a remote mountain. But the funds invested directly in creating and studying the cavernous hole do not give a full picture of the cost to taxpayers, GAO said:
This does not include an estimated $956 million already paid by taxpayers from the U.S. Treasury’s judgment fund, resulting from 74 industry lawsuits, in which courts have ordered the government to compensate utilities for not accepting spent nuclear fuel starting in 1998, as required under the [Nuclear Waste Policy Act]. The government also has incurred $168 million in costs to defend DOE in litigation.
Now DOE apparently wants to start over, from square one.

GAO recommended that Congress consider establishing a more predictable funding mechanism to develop and implement a disposal solution for used nuclear fuel and defense waste and creating an independent organization, outside DOE, to lead the siting and development of a permanent repository.

For another GAO report on the Yucca Mountain project, see this post.

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