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Delays fan frustration with Yucca

WASHINGTON — The nuclear industry’s frustration with Yucca Mountain delays is at an "all-time peak," but a senior executive said there is no consensus as to whether the Energy Department program should be overhauled.

Alex Flint, a senior vice president at the Nuclear Energy Institute, said there is "incredible frustration" that a Nevada nuclear waste repository won’t be ready for another decade at the earliest to accept spent fuel. The site 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas was supposed to open in 1998.

Flint, who is head of NEI governmental affairs, spoke with reporters at a breakfast organized by The Energy Daily.

Flint said Ward Sproat, the Yucca project director, "is probably the best manager the program has ever had." Sproat, a former executive at Exelon Corp., has been "blunt about the schedules and some of the challenges the program faces."

That has exposed industry officials to the unwelcome news that Yucca Mountain is years away from possible reality, he said.

In testimony to Congress and in speeches to industry groups, Sproat has set 2017 as a "best achievable" schedule for the Yucca site 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas to begin accepting waste, adding it is more likely the date would slip to 2020 or 2021.

Other experts and critics of the repository program set a repository opening time frame for 2025 or later if ever.

With Yucca Mountain facing further delays, some industry officials have revived an idea that the repository might be built with less political intervention and less leadership turnover if it is handed over to a semi-private government-chartered corporation.

Most recently, H. Brew Barron, chief nuclear officer of Duke Energy Corp., promoted the idea in a speech Tuesday. He said the repository effort is hampered by a "revolving door" of senior managers who come and go during election cycles.

"Let’s not privatize the program, but let’s run the program with private sector principles," Barron said at a conference of the U.S. Transport Council. He said an appointed board of directors similar to the one that runs the Tennessee Valley Authority, for instance, would hire managers for long employment and hold them accountable.

"I think that same type of organization would serve our high-level nuclear waste program much better than the structure we have today," said Barron, whose company operates seven nuclear reactors in North Carolina and South Carolina.

Flint said the long delays forecast for the Yucca Mountain repository are causing "a few people" in the nuclear industry to think about restructuring the project.

"But we are far from a consensus on whether we need to contemplate a new management structure, and if so what kind of management structure," he said.

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