Short sighted Yucca Mountain shutdown Jun 2011
Patrick Reynolds, Freelance Reporter
Wrestling over the fate of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in the United States continues with the Governmental Accountability Office claiming some failings in the Department of Energy's rapid shutdown of the scheme, problems for any restart, and its call for a new agency to take over the national reins. Patrick Reynolds reports on developments.
90km of tunnels would house nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain

90km of tunnels would house nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain

An independent nuclear waste management body could be set up to replace the US Department of Energy (DoE) in national long-term repository planning says the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) in its latest reports. This follows the DoE’s move against the Yucca Mountain scheme in Nevada last year and problems left overhanging as a consequence.
DoE ditched Yucca as an "unworkable" project in March 2010 but the GAO says the department did not make its case either on technical or safety grounds and instead, was persuaded by local public resistance.
The project, to build an extensive network of access tunnels and repository caverns, is effectively dismantled and is without staff but remains in a legal limbo. While DoE moved against the scheme, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and the courts have yet to make final rulings on the case.
A list of alternative projects is to be produced by the DoE's Blue Ribbon Commission in January 2012. However, should none of these advance, and if either the NRC or courts complicate matters further, by backing Yucca after all, then the challenge of re-establishing the scheme will be all the more difficult, due to the manner in which the DoE closed it down, says the GAO.
The GAO claims there was insufficient and incomplete handling of records by DoE at Yucca, and that this was in breach of Federal rules. The rapid shutdown was an "ambitious set of steps", and GAO notes the achievements made in the process, but says DoE's documentation was "limited". It adds that DoE did not finalise a plan for the shutdown, nor did it identify or assess any associated risks.
Isometric view of the underground repository

Isometric view of the underground repository

The GAO has produced three reports into the DoE's handling of Yucca the latest on 1 June (see References), and these put it at odds with the Department and, at times, the NRC.
The NRC is deciding whether to look again at its own, earlier, rejection of DoE's bid to end a licence application for Yucca, a formal step in dropping the scheme. But a year ago, before the project was shutdown, NRC's Atomic Safety and Licensing Board rejected the bid. NRC's own commissioners have said they might review the decision but nothing has happened as yet.
The push against Yucca began shortly after the Obama Administration took office in early 2009. Political argument continues between the Democrats and Republicans and especially after the Republicans gained more power after the mid-term elections last November (2010).
In undertaking its reviews of performance and alleged uncertainties and confusion surrounding the Yucca Mountain shutdown, GAO has suggested that an independent organisation could deliver improved and predictable performance in nuclear waste management.
More than 75,000 tonne of spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste has been produced by the USA at 80 sites, and the volume has been forecast to more than double by 2055, says the GAO.
As part of its nuclear waste management responsibilities, DoE has agreements with five States (Colorado, Idaho, New York, South Carolina and Washington) and the US Navy. Its Office of Environmental Management looks after 13,000 tonne of nuclear waste. But neither DoE nor the Navy have developed long-term plans to mitigate the potential effects of having to store waste at existing sites longer, following termination of the Yucca scheme, claims the GAO.
The GAO is calling for the DoE to review existing waste storage assets and the resources that would be needed to extend their lives. It is also calling for a review of research needed to establish the strategy for long-term storage facilities. But while agreeing with GAO's recommendations, DoE disputes some of its findings.
In its April report, the GAO noted that the search for an alternative to Yucca could bring benefits but added there is no certainty, and that delays and higher costs in establishing a storage facility in a different location might result. It suggested that greater predictability for funding might come with the independent agency, but calls for the DoE to assess the remaining risks at Yucca and establish a plan to resume licensing, should that be demanded. DoE disputed the facts in GAO's report while NRC concurred, based on reviews of the draft document. The DoE also disagreed with the recommendations.
GAO Report – 'Disposal Challenges and Lessons Learned from Yucca Mountain' (GAO-11-731T), published in June.
GAO Report – 'Effects of a Termination of the Yucca Mountain Repository Programme and Lessons Learned' (GAO-11-229), published in April
GAO Report – 'Better Information Needed on Waste Storage at DoE Sites as a Result of Yucca Mountain Shutdown' (GAO-11-230), published in March
Waste management at Yucca Mountain - TunnelTalk, May 2002
Yucca Mountain all but scrapped - TunnelTalk, March 2009
Move to bury Yucca nuclear waste repository - TunnelTalk, March 2010
Concerns and consequences of seismic devastation - TunnelTalk, March 2011

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