Obama budget plan cuts Yucca Mountain funding

The Obama administration is poised to move forward with a blue ribbon panel to look at alternatives for dealing with radioactive waste, but the Department of Energy for now will continue to pursue a license to put it in Yucca Mountain.

Language in President Barack Obama’s budget outline, expected to be released today, says the “Yucca Mountain program will be scaled back to those costs necessary to answer inquiries from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, while the Administration devises a new strategy toward nuclear waste disposal.”

The language doesn’t include a suggested funding level for next year, “but makes it clear that the (Obama) administration is going to go forward with another solution to the nation’s nuclear waste that doesn’t include Yucca Mountain,” said Jon Summers, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

Reid on Wednesday called Obama’s decision “a critical first step towards fulfilling his promise to end the Yucca Mountain project … and represents a significant and lasting victory in our battle” to stop the Department of Energy from entombing nuclear waste from power plants in the mountain, 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

A nuclear industry official in Nevada, however, says the budget language indicates that funding, though greatly reduced from past years, will allow the Energy Department to continue its pursuit of a license application as required by law.

The project is projected to have a record low $288 million spending level, a $100 million reduction, the rest of fiscal year 2009 as Reid negotiated in a omnibus bill for agency funding through September.

“The administration has to decide what’s doable and not doable, but the law of the land is pretty crystal clear: Study a site, submit a license application and see what NRC has to say about the license application,” said Paul Seidler, senior director in Nevada for the Nuclear Energy Institute.

“We like the idea of the blue ribbon commission. We think that makes good sense.”

Under current technologies demonstrated on a laboratory scale, recycling and reprocessing nuclear waste holds promise to reduce the amount that would be put in a repository, “but you still end up with a by-product,” Seidler said. “What do you do with that by-product?”

Transmutation is another technology being explored to reduce the waste, as well as using fusion — joining atoms to produce energy — to get rid of the fission by-products in used nuclear fuel. But those technologies haven’t been demonstrated, he said.

Seidler noted that the budget reference that discusses focusing “on improved performance and accountability for the environmental legacy of the nation’s nuclear weapons program” means cleaning up contamination in the nuclear weapons complex will require a place to put those wastes. Yucca Mountain is the only one on the radar.

Changing course on nuclear waste disposal will require changing the law, Seidler said.

“A lot of years have passed since the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. A lot’s changed since then, so it makes sense to look at the big picture,” he said.

Contact reporter Keith Rogers at krogers@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0308.

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