Outgoing Department of Energy Head
Confident Nevada to Get Nuke Waste

   By Steve Miller
   copyright 1996, Electric Nevada

The odds heavily favor Nevada's Yucca Mountain being okayed for federal storage of nuclear waste, says outgoing Clinton Administration Secretary of Energy Hazel O'Leary.
Speaking with the Minneapolis Star-Tribune last week, O'Leary estimated Yucca Mountain could be receiving and storing spent nuclear fuel from around the country by 2010.
She put the chances scientists will approve the site as a permanent repository at 85%.
Displaying a mounted rock fragment, the energy secretary said it showed the federal department's progress boring a 5-mile tunnel into Yucca Mountain. The tunnel is to let geologists and other scientists assess whether the site would be a safe place to bury nuclear waste for 10,000 years.
"This piece was given to me on Sept. 25 when we were at mile 4," she told a Minneapolis reporter. "I think they will finish . . . before the spring, maybe by the end of January."
That timetable, said O'Leary, would allow scientists to complete their risk assessment in time for the energy department to still seek, by 1998, a Nuclear Regulatory Commission license to open the Yucca Mountain repository.
Because the Clinton administration is making so much progress toward developing a permanent burial site in



Nevada, said O'Leary, an interim facility would be a mistake.
"Let us not go spending all this bloody money and build an interim facility," said O'Leary.
Before taking the cabinet job in 1993, O'Leary was an executive with Northern States Power Co. (NSP), Minnesota's largest provider of electricity. Her interview with the Star-Tribune was given before Christmas.
Under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, passed by Congress in 1982, the federal government is required to begin accepting title to nuclear industry waste by Jan. 31, 1998, according to Bob Loux, director of the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects, the state office responsible for overseeing the federal high-level nuclear waste program.
However, the U.S. Energy Department acknowledged earlier this month it will not be able to take physical possession of the waste material by that deadline. In a brief letter to nuclear utilities, it requested their views as to "how the delay can best be accommodated."
O'Leary's opposition to building an interim nuclear storage site is new. Previously in favor of the idea, she now believes, she said, that


 
building an interim site would be politically and economically unwise.
That economic reference, says Nevada's Loux, cloaks a real dilemma faced by the nuclear industry: if it pursues construction of an interim facility, there probably won't be enough federal funds to bring a permanent repository on-line.
"Even though ... rate payers... have been contributing into a fund that the federal government manages that pays for all of this," he told Electric Nevada, "it's clear that with the budget caps that Congress and the administration are imposing on each other, to try and balance the budget in 2002," no more than about $400 million would be available annually.
That sum is far below what is needed to do the three things the nuclear industry is asking, said Loux. Not only do the utilities want siting and construction of an interim storage facility, plus continued study and work on a permanent repository, but industry legal action could make the government soon start paying out some of the money for "at-reactor" on-site storage -- back to the utilities themselves.
"In some sense, the utilities' argument that the DOE take title and take it now, hurts them in the long run," said Loux, "in that there




are some estimates the DOE could have to shell out as much as $300 million a year for at-reactor storage costs, leaving only a $100 million left for a repository and/or interim storage program -- if in fact the Congress orders one.
"So I think what she's telling them is, 'If you're continuing to push for interim storage, you're really hurting this program in the long run, in that there's not enough federal monies available under the budget to do it all.'"
Loux disputed O'Leary's estimate that Yucca Mountain could be receiving and storing spent nuclear fuel by 2010.
"I think most observers ...would disagree with her about the percent likelihood that Yucca Mountain will work out. But moreover, most people would agree that the time scale is more like 2020 to 2025, under ideal circumstances -- simply because no dates in the Nuclear Waste Policy program have been met to date, and most of them have been deferred for decades. The GAO [Government Accounting Office] predicts somewhere like 2020 under optimistic circumstances."
Even should the Department of Energy meet its best estimates, said Loux, the first year that the Yucca Mountain site could even be declared suitable for development


 
as a repository is 2000, at which point the state of Nevada then has an opportunity to veto the site.
"And then the two houses of Congress can override that veto," he said "At that point in time, of course, the State of Nevada will take the opportunity to engage in numerous legal challenges." [
For Nevada's legal strategy, click here ].




The Star-Tribune story, in closing, noted that "Political and scientific hurdles have slowed the department's search for a disposal site for years.
"Almost every congressional member wants to ensure that it is not located in his or her home state."


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