Yucca Mountain "Dead?"

AS VEGAS (AP) - These days, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid prefers nothing so much as a one-word description for the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository long planned for his state.


And President Barack Obama has made clear he is looking elsewhere for an answer the nation's nuclear waste problem.

But that doesn't mean people aren't still paying for it.

Sometimes not even the president, with the Senate majority leader at his back, can easily kill a project 25 years and $13.5 billion in the making. Not quickly or cheaply, anyway.

In February, Congress allocated $288 million for the development of the site legally designated to hold the nation's radioactive waste. That was about $100 million less than what the Bush administration requested, but still enough for a staff of several hundred people to continue work.

Last week, President Barack Obama proposed funding the Yucca Mountain repository at $196.8 million in 2010, an all-time low.

The money flows despite Energy Secretary Steven Chu's recent declaration that the desert mountain 90 miles from Las Vegas is no longer considered an option for radioactive waste storage. Obama's proposed budget repeats the assertion, making good on an oft-repeated campaign promise to swing-state Nevada.

Experts say Yucca Mountain hasn't disappeared from the budget for reasons both practical and political.

Neither Reid nor the president has tried to hammer the nail in the coffin. Neither is pushing for a change to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, the bill that as amended in 1987 requires the government to store spent fuel from nuclear power plants under an ancient volcanic ridge called Yucca Mountain.

Reid's office said the first step is finding another home for the radioactive waste.

"The law will eventually have to be changed to completely kill Yucca," Reid spokesman Jon Summers said. "However there's no rush to do so until we have an alternative plan for dealing with nuclear waste in place."

To that end, Reid and Chu have announced a blue ribbon commission to study nuclear waste storage alternatives. The commission has been charged with making recommendations to the Energy Department, as long as those recommendations don't include Yucca Mountain.

Once the commission has made its findings "then we will be in our best position to change the law," Summers said.

Bob Loux, the former head of the Nevada state agency charged with fighting Yucca Mountain, put it another way.

Changing the law requires a vote of Congress, a vote Reid isn't likely to win without a new policy alternative on the table.

"I don't think there's an interest in Congress to sit down and hammer out a new repository program," said Loux, adding that the process might not sit well with some.

It's a little bit like everyone shoving it in everyone's face - Nevada won. You force every congressman and senator to deal with that. You don't have to do that. There's much more subtle ways to get things done," he said.

The more subtle ways are slower, and more costly.

While the Obama administration has proposed a dramatic cut in the project's budget, it also said it plans to continue the process of licensing the underground storage site. The proposed budget actually increased funding for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which can take up to four years deliberating on the license application.

On Wednesday, it was announced that Gregory B. Jaczko, a close Reid ally, was in line to chair the commission, dealing a blow to Yucca Mountain proponents.

Still, the decision to continue with the licensing leaves the door open for a future administration - perhaps one facing different political realities - to revive the site.

Chu's explanation is that he believes there is scientific value in continuing to attempt to license the site, even though the administration's policy is that it will never be used.

Asked to explain, Energy Department spokeswoman Stephanie Mueller said only that the process "and other important issues need to be resolved thoughtfully, carefully and comprehensively as we develop a responsible long-term approach to nuclear waste management."

Industry groups, however, suggest there could be legal ramifications if the application is withdrawn.

"Yucca Mountain is still the law of the land," said John Keeley, spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute. "We can't speculate on what would happen if the administration were to suddenly pull the license application, but it seems to me that their not doing so is on some level recognition that there would be dire consequences, dire liability consequences."

Federal courts already have found the Energy Department in breach of contract for not taking ownership of the spent fuel now being stored at nuclear reactors, as dictated by law. Those courts have awarded close to $1 billion to utilities, and future liabilities could top $11 billion, according to industry figures.

Kelley said his group supports the new blue ribbon commission, and he conceded the rush to find a new home for waste stored at nuclear power plants across the country isn't a race against time.

"The good news here is we're not in any emergency or crisis situation because our 104 reactor sites across the country have safely and securely managed fuel on site," he said. "The fuel can stay there for 100 years."

With the urgency removed from the process, its possible Yucca Mountain, as a budget line item, could linger for years while alternatives are developed and the political will to change the law is mustered.

That prospect has led at least one prominent Yucca Mountain proponent to question the Reid-Obama strategy.

While repeating his support for the project, Arizona Sen. John McCain has questioned the continued use of tax money and fees from utilities on a dead effort.

"If opponents of Yucca Mountain are going to hold this project hostage, then we shouldn't be charging the American taxpayer and utilities for this facility," McCain said in a statement. "Let's be honest with the American taxpayers and move forward on Yucca Mountain as we need to and I support, or if not, close it and refund the money."

Under that scenario, the government would have to refund nearly $30 billion in payments and interest now in the Nuclear Waste Fund.

If the Obama administration doesn't follow McCain's advice, Yucca Mountain wouldn't be the first aborted government project to drain federal funding long after its "death." It might not even rank among the most expensive projects on the scrap heap.

In 1993, a year after Congress killed the superconducting super collider in Texas, the government spent $640 million not building it.

The federal budget allocation isn't the only money being spent on the dying Yucca Mountain project. As long as the project remains on the books, the state of Nevada will pay to fight it, along with environment groups, Indian tribes - with lawyers working on both sides.

"As long as this thing limps along, it'll cost everybody money," Loux said.
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