Panel gives up on Yucca, seeks support for other sites

A panel on nuclear waste issued a preliminary finding Friday that Congress should change the law that singles out Yucca Mountain for disposing highly radioactive spent fuel from the nation's commercial power reactors.

Instead, the Nuclear Waste Policy Act should allow a "consent-based process" for identifying states and communities that are more nuclear-waste-friendly than Nevada to host storage and disposal sites.

The law should allow for a number of temporary storage facilities until a permanent site is selected.

And, the job of managing used nuclear fuel should be transferred from the Energy Department to a new, government-chartered independent corporation, similar to the Tennessee Valley Authority, which was established during the Great Depression to promote resource development in that region.

"We conclude that a federal corporation chartered by Congress offers the most promising model," the draft report said.

To make all this work, legislation is needed to tap the Nuclear Waste Fund, bypassing Congress' annual appropriation process.

Nevada's leading opponent to the Yucca Mountain Project said the 180-page report by the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future is "tacit acknowledgment that Yucca Mountain is history because under the existing project the path that's been followed has not worked and will not lead to a solution."

"It's another nail in the coffin," said Joe Strolin, acting executive director of the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects.

"Whether or not it's the final nail we don't know."

Energy Secretary Steven Chu formed the commission at the request of President Barack Obama. The 15-member panel is led by former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft and former Rep. Lee H. Hamilton, D-Ind., who was vice chairman of the 9/11 Commission.

Friday's release of the draft report launched a public comment period that runs through Oct. 31. The Blue Ribbon Commission will deliver its final report to Chu by Jan. 29.

The report highlights the importance of establishing a new organization to site, license, build and operate facilities for temporary storage and final disposal of both civilian and defense spent fuel and high-level nuclear waste.

"For the new organization to succeed, a substantial degree of implementing authority and assured access to funds must be paired with rigorous financial, technical, and regulatory oversight by Congress and the appropriate government agencies," according to the report's executive summary.

The Energy Department has spent more than $10 billion over nearly 25 years, studying Yucca Mountain and trying to license the site for entombing 77,000 tons of used nuclear fuel and highly radioactive waste in a maze of tunnels inside the volcanic-rock ridge, 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

Opposition by Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Nevada's delegation has blocked the project from moving forward since the Senate approved the project in 2002 over Gov. Kenny Guinn's veto, 15 years after Congress passed the "Screw Nevada Bill," which singled out Yucca Mountain as the only site to be studied for burying the nation's spent fuel.

In a statement Friday, Reid praised the commission's efforts and declared that "the Yucca Mountain project is dead and it is not coming back."

"The responsible next step is charting a realistic path towards solving the problem, not trying to resurrect a costly failed nuclear waste policy," Reid said.

In a telephone interview from Carson City, Strolin said the report "has basically endorsed what Nevada has been saying all along: have a credible site and a process with voluntary consent of the host state to go forward with it. Those are the two fundamental principles."

Nevada leaders consistently have objected to the Energy Department's stance that Yucca Mountain is a suitable site.

They have contended instead that it is flawed by earthquake and volcanic hazards, and they have presented evidence that surface water could trickle through the planned repository, corrode waste containers and allow potentially deadly radioactive materials to escape into the environment.

The nuclear industry's lobbying arm, the Nuclear Energy Institute, said in a statement that it concurs with a number of recommendations in the report but "continues to believe that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's review of the Department of Energy's license application ... for the proposed Yucca Mountain repository should continue."

The institute is "particularly gratified" that the panel recommended establishing one or more facilities for interim storage of used fuel and creating a new organization to manage the material, with full access to nuclear waste fee revenues.

Some members of Congress were not so pleased with the report, however.

Rep. Fred Upton, D-Mich., chairman of the Energy and commerce Committee, and Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., chairman of the Environment and the Economy Subcommittee, bemoaned that Obama was omitting Yucca Mountain for consideration.

"After billions of dollars spent and decades of research, let's start listening to the nuclear scientists and not the political scientists and embrace the Yucca Mountain repository as a responsible hallmark of our nuclear future," they said in a statement.

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