Waste discovered at Yucca Mountain

Last modified: 6/16/2011 12:00:00 AM
In the desert of Nevada, a hundred miles from Las Vegas, engineers have drilled a tunnel through the heart of Yucca Mountain. The hole is 25 feet wide and five miles long. It's dark in there. The light bulbs have been removed. The ventilation has been turned off. There's nothing inside but some rusting rails that were supposed to carry 70,000 tons of nuclear waste to a permanent grave.

Outside, the gates are locked. When three members of Congress visited in March, the federal government spent $15,000 just to reopen the place for a few hours.

Yucca Mountain is a case study in government dysfunction and bureaucratic inertia. The project dates back three decades. It has not solved the problem of nuclear waste but has succeeded in keeping fully employed large numbers of litigators.

The mountain dump was a project that came to life slowly and tortuously and is in the process of dying in a similar fashion.

As it now stands, the Yucca Mountain tunnel is likely to turn into a $15 billion Hole to Nowhere.

'This is Alice in Wonderland. Only in Washington, D.C., could something like this happen,' said Ed Davis, a nuclear industry consultant and former president of the American Nuclear Energy Council.

Just about every side of the issue agrees that, viewed broadly, the Yucca story has been an epic fiasco. A report released in April by the Government Accountability Office estimates that $15 billion has been spent on the attempt to find, and build, a place to put the spent nuclear fuel.

'Everybody in the government seems to have ended up with egg on their face,' said Yucca opponent Victor Gilinsky, a former Nuclear Regulatory Commission commissioner and former consultant to the state of Nevada.

The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, passed by Congress and signed into law by President Ronald Reagan the following year, compelled the Department of Energy to search for a deep geological repository among potential sites both east and west of the Mississippi.

Powerful politicians found ways to leverage their states off the list of candidate sites. Gone as potential locations, for example, were the salt domes beneath Texas and Louisiana, or the granite formations of New Hampshire. Congress eventually decided that the only place suitable was Nevada, in the desert terrain not far from land that had already been irradiated in above-ground atomic weapon tests in the 1950s. In 1987, in what is commonly known as the 'Screw-Nevada Bill,' Congress designated Yucca Mountain as the focus of the program.

Utility customers across the country pay a slight surcharge on their monthly bills to fund the waste disposal project - money sitting in a $24 billion account. The mountain turned out to be wetter than expected. Scientists discovered that plutonium from the atomic bomb tests had migrated into the groundwater, indicating that the mountain was not as geologically isolated as hoped.

The April GAO report details a lurching, haphazard shutdown of the huge project starting in February 2010. The Department of Energy terminated the jobs of several thousand federal workers and contractors while hastily abandoning offices in Las Vegas and transferring dozens of truckloads of furniture, computers and other equipment to other department sites and local schools.

Department officials told the GAO that 'they did not have a good inventory of property at Yucca Mountain' and that some items might have been stolen. Department workers found broken locks at the site on three occasions. They had no idea what the burglars might have taken.

Last fall, NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko ordered the staff to wind down a two-year-old technical review of the Yucca Mountain project. But the inspector general found that Jaczko was 'not forthcoming' with some fellow commissioners and that they did not fully grasp that his administrative actions were a death knell for Yucca.

The next turn of events will likely take place in the courts. On March 22, the federal appeals court heard oral arguments on a consolidated set of Yucca-related lawsuits against the Obama administration and the NRC.

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