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Lake Barrett: 20 Years Late but DOE Needs to Jumpstart Yucca Mountain and Consolidated Storage

By Lake Barrett | January 31, 2018

Twenty years ago today, as the Acting Director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Radioactive Waste Management (OCRWM), I had to publicly admit that the Federal Government, specifically the DOE, could not meet its lawful contractual obligation to start to remove spent nuclear fuel from America’s nuclear reactors on January 31, 1998.   Although ten billion plus dollars has been spent on science to demonstrate the safety of a proposed national repository at Yucca Mountain, petty election politicking is continuing to stop all progress on this critical environmental program.

So, today marks the 20th anniversary of the Department's failure to meet its contractual obligation to start removing spent nuclear fuel from commercial nuclear reactors.  This has come at great cost as Federal taxpayer liabilities are approaching $30 billion. Moreover, approximately 86,000 metric tons of highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel and defense waste remains stranded at over 121 sites in 39 states albeit safely on our rivers, lakes and seashores that are within 50 miles of over 150 million people.

No current removal schedule exists because no funding has been provided by Congress since 2010, although the U.S. House of Representatives has consistently advanced appropriations to fund the program.  Meanwhile, the Nation’s taxpayers have had to wastefully pay billions of dollars in damage payments for temporary reactor site storage when the waste should have been removed and placed in a safe underground Yucca Mountain geologic repository for permanent disposal. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission after reviewing the Yucca Mountain License Application has issued five Safety Evaluation Reports deeming Yucca Mountain safe for waste disposal for a million years.  The next step in the process is to allow for challenges to their report in a public hearing phase before the NRC.  This public review process must continue.

This situation becomes worse as more of the U.S.’s older reactors shutdown leaving our grandchildren with an even greater problem to deal with.  Many leaders, like House Energy & Commerce Environmental Subcommittee Chairman John Shimkus, who has championed a bipartisan Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA) amendments, President Trump, who has requested $120 million to restart the program and Energy Secretary Rick Perry either do or say the right things, but there is not enough political will, notably in the U.S. Senate, to overcome the constant Congressional political “wait until after the next election” drama.

Short of Congressional appropriations, Secretary Perry has executive action options to jumpstart OCRWM, which is statutorily prescribed under the NWPA.  His options include naming an acting director; nominating a director for Senate confirmation; and using an estimated $10 million in carryover funding to make preparations to restart the Yucca Mountain licensing process (as the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission is doing).   This action would send a clear signal that DOE is serious about discharging its legal and statutory obligations after eight years of study, review, delay and distraction during the Obama Administration.

The Nation has been fortunate nothing significant, other than the waste of billions of dollars, has happened with the left behind spent nuclear fuel for the past twenty years.  Who knows what the price of inaction will be for the next 20 years if this vicious cycle is not broken?  If I had known that the Federal system would politically fail so badly over the last 20 years, I would have chosen a different path back in 1998.  It is way past time for our current leaders to move forward.  We can’t afford not to.

 

Lake Barrett was the Acting Director of the DOE Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste from 1993 to 2002.

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