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DOE: Enlarge repository

WASHINGTON — Nevadans who fear the Yucca Mountain Project now might have twice as much to worry about.

The Department of Energy is almost doubling the size of the proposed repository as it completes new environmental studies and long-term cost estimates of burying nuclear waste in Nevada.

The department late Thursday issued a draft study that the project’s director said analyzes the potential environmental effects of a repository built to hold up to 135,000 metric tons of used nuclear fuel and other highly radioactive waste.

Further, DOE is finalizing long-range cost estimates for Yucca Mountain on the assumption it could be expanded at some point, project Director Ward Sproat said. The repository project’s price tag could total in the range of $77 billion, a 35 percent increase from a 2001 estimate.

The department’s actions laying groundwork for a possible expansion at Yucca Mountain opened a new flash point of opposition in Nevada. State leaders argue nuclear waste burial is unsafe, and they do not want a repository of any size, let alone one that could be almost twice as large as originally planned.

“Doubling the size of Yucca Mountain will only double the danger,” said Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev. “This is not a bad dream; it’s a nightmare.”

A federal law passed in 1982 set the Yucca Mountain capacity at 70,000 metric tons.

But while the project has been delayed for years, commercial power plants have gotten life extensions and are generating waste at a rate of 2,000 metric tons per year.

With the waste already waiting for disposal at 121 locations, that means a Yucca repository effectively would be “full” long before it might open in the next decade or two.

Sproat said 135,000 metric tons is estimated as the entire waste output of nuclear plants through their operating lives.

The Energy Department has asked Congress to pass a bill that would remove the 70,000 metric ton cap at Yucca Mountain, but it has drawn little interest from lawmakers. DOE also is preparing a report on whether the government should consider building a second repository.

The Electric Power Research Institute, an arm of the utility industry, said in a study completed in June that the repository could be redesigned to hold at least 260,000 metric tons of waste and up to 570,000 metric tons with additional site characterization.

“Additional drifts can be successfully excavated, loaded and cooled during a 50-year retrievability period such as the capacity of Yucca Mountain can be increased by at least a factor of three,” said the study, which was overseen by John Kessler, Electric Power Research Institute manager of high-level waste and spent fuel.

Sproat said Thursday he anticipates charges that the Energy Department is being presumptuous in examining issues related to an expanded Yucca repository.

“People will absolutely say that, but we don’t have any other basis to do anything else,” Sproat said.

If DOE limited itself to preparations for a 70,000 metric ton facility, policymakers “would ask me, what about everything else?”

“I am probably in a no-win situation, but I like the way we are going,” Sproat said.

The project director said that DOE still plans by the end of June 2008 to seek a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a 70,000 metric ton facility.

If Congress were to lift the cap, DOE would move forward at that point, he said.

Rep. Jon Porter, R-Nev., said DOE is setting the stage to push Congress to enlarge the Nevada site.

“Once they convince themselves the science is safe, they will use that as an argument to expand,” he said.

At a congressional hearing Thursday, Porter argued that Congress should move in the opposite direction and end the project.

When it was conceived in 1982, Sony had just come up with the portable CD player, cell phones and the Internet did not exist, and the top-selling record was “Thriller” by Michael Jackson, he said.

“In 25 years, we have studied a hole in the ground to death,” Porter said. “We have spent 10 billion to 11 billion dollars but have not moved one inch on the playing field.”

Bob Loux, director of the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects, said the state will evaluate the legality of the department’s actions.

“I think it certainly calls into question the validity of the environmental impact statement if they are doing an analysis for a scenario that is illegal under federal law,” Loux said. “The only way they could be directed to do this is to amend the Nuclear Waste Policy Act,” the 1982 law.

But another observer said room appears to exist in another law, the National Environmental Policy Act, for what the department is doing.

“I think in the world of NEPA, you are supposed to identify reasonably foreseeable increases in scope,” said Brian O’Connell, nuclear waste adviser at the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners. “If you err on the side of a larger impact, you can always scale back.”

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at stetreault@stephensmedia.com or (202) 783-1760.

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