Outgoing nuclear chief: Yucca project not dead yet

WASHINGTON — Despite pronouncements that the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste site is as good as dead when Barack Obama becomes president, the outgoing project director cautioned Thursday against throwing dirt on the grave just yet.

Ward Sproat, Department of Energy director of the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, suggested Obama may find it difficult to end the nuclear waste program despite pledges during the presidential campaign that he would bring it to a halt.

“All I will say is there is a difference between political rhetoric and political reality and this program has both,” Sproat said in a presentation to a National Academy of Sciences board.

“Part of the political reality is there are 39 states that have high level nuclear waste and want it out,” Sproat said. “I have my own sense of what I think could happen but I am not ready to place bets yet on how it is going to play out.”

Speaking to reporters afterwards Sproat declined to give a more detailed prediction, but said it would include the Yucca project remaining alive while the Nuclear Regulatory Commission continues to evaluate the science that DOE compiled for a construction license application.

But even if the project remains active, Sproat said it will continue to struggle with obtaining necessary funding from Congress and dealing with political opposition. Nevada officials and other critics argue the site is unsuitable and that the Department of Energy has mismanaged the effort.

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., its chief critic, has engineered a series of budget cuts in recent years that have caused delays, worker layoffs and several DOE retoolings.

A possible opening date for the site where 70,000 metric tons of commercial spent nuclear fuel would be buried at the site 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas has been pushed back several times to beyond 2020. Sproat said a firm date cannot be set until the project is financially secure.

Sproat’s presentation to the academy’s Board of Nuclear and Radiation Studies was possibly his final public appearance as Yucca project director. He was appointed to the post two years ago by President Bush, and is planning to resign in January in advance of Obama taking office.

During the presidential campaign, Obama was critical of the nuclear waste project and said he preferred keeping nuclear waste stored at power plants until an alternative to Yucca Mountain could be found.

Reid has said he and Obama have discussed Yucca Mountain several times since the election, and the repository program “is history.”

A Reid spokesman said Thursday that Sproat was being disingenuous by implying that a Yucca repository will remove all waste from utility sites. Most of them will continue generating nuclear waste even as older fuel is shipped off.

“This is an example of the type of misleading remarks we have seen from dump supporters,” spokesman Jon Summers said.

“Now we have a president who is committed to killing the project,” Summers said. “He has made that promise and there is no reason to think he won’t keep it.”

Sproat, a former executive with the Exelon power corporation, has been credited by the nuclear industry with revitalizing the Yucca Mountain Project that had been spinning its wheels for close to a decade, culminating in completion over the summer of a repository application.

Still, the future remains cloudy.

Marty Malsch, an attorney representing the state of Nevada, told the nuclear studies board that “important parts” of the license application “are of very poor quality,” and will be challenged before the NRC.

Malsch said the state later this month will be filing about 250 technical challenges to the license application.

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at or 202-783-1780.


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