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Some US nuclear industry officials question if new repository strategy needed

Washington — Nearly a decade after the US Department of Energy dismantled the Yucca Mountain repository project in Nevada, the program still lacks congressional funding to move it forward, and some nuclear industry officials are wondering if it is time to look for another way to dispose of the country's more than 80,000 mt of utility spent fuel.

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A "tipping point," that is, a point where it no longer makes sense to remain focused on the stalled Yucca Mountain project, "might not be far away," one industry official said in an interview January 9.

He was one of three industry officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to talk with the media. All three support the Yucca Mountain project.

This official said he believed the window for fiscal 2019 funding for the program has closed, noting he does not see "a near-term strategy" or a "viable pathway" for that. The fiscal year ends September 30.

The new speaker of the House of Representatives, Representative Nancy Pelosi, Democrat-California, has voted against legislation aimed at restarting the Yucca Mountain program, creating a united front with Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer of New York against a revival of the project.

DOE dismantled the Yucca Mountain program -- the country's only repository project -- in 2010, two years after it submitted a repository license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. DOE said in part Nevada's opposition to the proposed disposal facility made the site unworkable. NRC suspended its review of the Yucca Mountain application in 2011, but resumed that work with limited funds in 2013 under a federal court order. NRC has nearly exhausted its carryover Nuclear Waste Fund money and would need a congressional allocation to continue the review.

The industry supports the Yucca Mountain project and will continue to seek funding for it, Maria Korsnick, president and CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute, said in a January 7 interview. But she noted spent fuel legislation might not be a top priority in the 116th Congress.

Asked whether some in the industry might consider Yucca Mountain not worth fighting for much longer, given the setbacks to its development, Korsnick said she would understand such a perspective. "It's taken so long, I think it's fair for anybody to question whether or not it can actually come to pass," she said.

IS IT TIME FOR A CHANGE?

For a second nuclear industry official, the fact the federal government has collected more than $30 billion from nuclear utility customers since 1983 for the disposal of spent fuel and still lacks a repository is among the factors that could signal "it is time to move on to another site in another state."

This official added in an email December 21 that sites previously considered for a high-level nuclear waste repository might be a good starting point. Under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, the US was to have two repositories. One disposal facility would be in the west and one in the eastern portion of the US.

DOE's first repository program identified nine sites in six states that were eventually narrowed to Yucca Mountain and sites in Texas and in Washington state before Congress amended the Nuclear Waste Policy Act in 1987 and designated Yucca Mountain the country's sole repository candidate. DOE also identified locations in 17 states -- mainly in the east, south and northeast of the country -- as potential sites for a second repository, but President Ronald Reagan "indefinitely postponed" that program in 1986.

"All the eggs [now] are in one basket," a third industry official said of the country's focus on Yucca Mountain. He acknowledged in a January 9 interview that looking for another site could "embolden opposition," which could learn from Nevada's actions, but noted: "You can't keep pushing on the same locked door."

This official said a two-repository program that includes Yucca Mountain might be worth reviving. "The political theory back then was if you have only one repository, no state would want to be the target of all the waste," he said of the two-repository program in the 1982 law.

He suggested a consent-based process to find potential disposal sites might be successful. An ad hoc DOE-appointed blue ribbon commission on nuclear waste recommended in 2012 that a consent-based process be used to site spent fuel facilities, giving state and local governments, affected communities and Indian tribes a say in the siting of a nuclear waste facility.

"If we keep dragging on, pretty soon we won't have any program," the third industry official said, pointing to the retirement of baby boomers working on the project.

"Nevada is more opposed to Yucca Mountain than ever," Robert Halstead, executive director of the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects, an opponent of a Yucca Mountain repository, said in a Friday email.

Nevada's congressional delegation and other state officials have maintained Yucca Mountain, roughly 95 miles outside Las Vegas, would not isolate radioactive waste from the environment. But volume 3 of NRC's 2014 safety evaluation report on the Yucca Mountain license application concluded the repository design meets the agency's post-closure safety requirements. NRC has cautioned that does not mean it would automatically license the facility.

Halstead maintained that Nevada will defeat the Yucca Mountain license application, noting: "Does anyone seriously think Congress will appropriate $2 billion for the licensing proceeding, let alone more than $100 billion for construction, operation, and closure of the proposed repository?" -- Elaine Hiruo, elaine.hiruo@spglobal.com

-- William Freebairn, william.freebairn@spglobal.com

-- Edited by Keiron Greenhalgh, newsdesk@spglobal.com