Division remains on storing nuclear waste

While the state Commission on Nuclear Projects huddled at the Clark County Government Center to continue its opposition of the Yucca Mountain Project, a few miles away on the Strip more than 2,000 nuclear industry leaders, scientists and researchers converged for a conference titled "Nuclear Progress!"

Despite their differences, both sides acknowledge that the nation’s high-level radioactive waste eventually will need a permanent disposal site.

Where that place is, when it will be ready and in what form the waste will be are some of the questions that remain a couple months after Congress zeroed out funding for the project and President Barack Obama’s Blue Ribbon Commission for America’s Nuclear Future began charting a new path forward.

"My opinion as a nuclear engineer is that the findings of that commission will not be much different than previous commissions. We know what the options are," said Mary Lou Dunzik-Gougar, incoming chairwoman of the American Nuclear Society’s Fuel Cycle and Waste Management Division.

The best option, whether or not it is Yucca Mountain, 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, or some other site in some other state, is deep, geologic disposal, she said.

The buzz at the society’s winter conference being held this week at the Riviera is "now what?" Dunzik-Gougar said.

Will the Yucca Mountain Project rise from the ashes left after Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., led the drive in Congress to end its funding after $9 billion had been spent on it by nuclear power ratepayers in 23 years?

Will the Nuclear Regulatory Commission reject the Department of Energy’s request to withdraw its license application for the Yucca Mountain repository and proceed toward entombing highly radioactive waste there as the law of the land?

Even with NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko ordering his staff to begin closing out their evaluation of the project, Nevada’s Nuclear Projects Agency Executive Director Bruce Breslow is cautious about what the post-election future holds.

"Nothing has changed. Yucca Mountain is the only site identified," Breslow said by phone after the state Commission on Nuclear Projects met. "We remain ready to prove, if necessary, that Yucca Mountain is an unsafe site for permanent, deep geologic disposal of high-level radioactive waste.

"My gut tells me that there aren’t enough votes in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to overturn the licensing board’s decision, and that the state will be ordered back into the licensing hearing. Whether or not DOE has the funding and the will to do the program is another matter entirely, and it will be up to Congress and the administration."

Breslow noted that solving the waste problem relies heavily on finding a state or landholder to volunteer to host a repository site.

American Nuclear Society officials say there is still hope for Yucca Mountain.

"Ultimately, I think the law of the land will stand," said Joe Colvin, the society’s president and a former president of the Nuclear Energy Institute. "Assuming that, I think the DOE will have to go forward with the evaluation of Yucca Mountain."

With Yucca Mountain’s exploratory tunnel mothballed and project scientists laid off or sent to other jobs, Colvin said the project nevertheless can be restarted.

"I don’t think we lost the expertise. What we’ve lost is the management at the Department of Energy," he said.

Meanwhile, scientists continue to explore technologies to reduce the volume of nuclear waste that will need disposal.

Even with so-called fast reactors that could burn up much of the waste materials, or chemical processes that reduce its bulk, there will still be a need for a repository to put waste byproducts.

Contact Keith Rogers at or 702-383-0308.


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