Memo casts doubt on license for Yucca repository

The Obama administration intends to stop the pursuit of a license for the planned Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in December, according to internal budget documents from the Department of Energy.

"All license defense activities will be terminated in December 2009," said a draft Program Decision Memorandum that was attached to an Oct. 23 memo from DOE Chief Financial Officer Steve Isakowitz.

The documents obtained by the Review-Journal said that decisions for a revised 2011 budget request "are draft until signed by the deputy secretary. ... We do not expect the information to change."

Pre-hearings began this year in Las Vegas on whether to build a maze of tunnels inside Yucca Mountain to store 77,000 tons of highly radioactive spent reactor fuel and defense waste. The location is about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

On Monday, DOE spokeswoman Stephanie Mueller declined to say whether the memos actually mean the federal agency is going to withdraw its Yucca Mountain license application.

Doing so without having an alternative site selected or having a commission in place to chart the future of the nuclear waste program could spur more lawsuits from the nuclear industry over the government's failure to take possession of the waste as called for in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act and its amendments.

In an e-mail, Mueller said that "the administration's position on Yucca Mountain has not changed."

She wrote that "the president and Secretary (Steven) Chu have made it clear that nuclear waste storage at Yucca Mountain is not an option, period."

She said the budget for the current fiscal year contained in an energy appropriations bill that President Barack Obama signed last month "clearly reflects the president's commitment to moving beyond Yucca Mountain and developing a long-term waste management solution."

Mitch Singer, a spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute, the lobby arm of the nuclear power industry, said he could not speculate on the legal implications alluded to in two trade publications, The Energy Daily and the Nuclear New Build Monitor. Both publications reported Monday on the memos.

"It's not even a done deal. It's a possible budget move. We really don't have a position on this at this point," Singer said Monday.

Bruce Breslow, executive director of Nevada's Agency for Nuclear Projects and the state's lead Yucca Mountain opponent, said he would be surprised if DOE withdrew the license application without having an alternative site in place because doing so "would open up the door for further lawsuits."

"If they shut it down now, then they're in violation of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act without the act being changed," Breslow said.

"We're hoping they'll withdraw the license application and declare the site unsuitable," he said.

A spokesman for Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he was enlightened by Monday's news in The Energy Daily.

"It's our understanding that this is still working its way through the process at the Energy Department, but it is encouraging to hear," Reid's spokesman Jon Summers wrote in an e-mail.

"The Obama administration has been very clear in its opposition to the dump at Yucca and, as majority leader of the Senate, Senator Reid will continue working with the president to ensure Nevada doesn't become the nation's nuclear dumping ground."

Funding for the proposed 2010-11 budget for the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management shows $46.2 million for the Yucca Mountain Project, according to the draft decision memo. Of that, $21.2 million is for site remediation and worker transition. The remaining $25 million is for archiving data produced during more than two decades of research on the project.

If requested, the total would be less than one-fourth of the $196.8 million that was approved for the project for 2009-10. The current funding level is more than $100 million less than the 2008-09 fiscal year allocation and is the lowest funding for the program since $243.5 million was appropriated for it in 1991.

Contact reporter Keith Rogers at or 702-383-0308.