Scientists question comparing nuclear waste storage costs

WASHINGTON — Government analysts are undertaking a study to compare the costs of building a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain against the costs of leaving the waste at power plants, where it is now stored.

But scientists who spoke up Thursday at a briefing said the idea of such a study didn’t make sense to them. There are so many uncertainties, such a comparison might be near-impossible, they said.

One expert said issues of cost historically have been low priorities when it comes to disposing of deadly waste compared to other impacts on society.

Nonetheless, the Government Accountability Office is tackling the study at the request of senators Harry Reid, D-Nev., John Ensign, R-Nev., and Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.

As part of a strategy to derail the ongoing government effort to bury nuclear waste at the Yucca site in Nevada, the senators introduced a bill that would leave radioactive spent fuel at reactor sites, where they now are stored in pools, and increasingly in concrete and steel dry cask silos.

One thing that is not known is how those economics stack up against Yucca Mountain, which the Department of Energy estimated earlier this summer could cost $96.2 billion to build and operate.

GAO officials said they are consulting experts as they put together a study plan. Thursday they turned to the Nuclear and Radiation Studies Board, an arm of the National Academy of Science, for advice on how they might proceed.

Analyst Ryan Gotschall said the GAO also plans to compare the costs of establishing interim storage sites, where nuclear waste could be kept for a hundred years before being moved to a final destination.

Radiation board members were skeptical a study could be done, or even was necessary.

Thomas Isaacs, director of policy and planning at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, said the thought troubled him.

Isaacs, a former Department of Energy strategic planning director, said policymakers placed economics last, behind health and safety and environmental protection, when they set a direction years ago for nuclear waste disposal.

They decided cost “should not be the driver for how the country decided to deal with this very vexing public policy issue,” Isaacs said.

“Doing nothing … has always been the cheapest thing to do,” Isaacs said. “You don’t have to do much of a study. I can tell you what the answer is. The answer is ‘nothing.’ “

Board Chairman Richard Meserve, a former member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said the emphasis on cost “is completely contrary to how we deal with all our issues dealing with waste.”

“It may be exactly what you were asked to do, but I would suggest it does not make much sense,” Meserve told the GAO officials.

Several board members recognized a political purpose for the study.

“You are trying to make the best of a set of questions that you did not get a chance to design,” Kevin Crowley, the board’s executive director, told the analysts.

“It reminds me of the discussion that has been going on the last couple of days involving cosmetics and certain farm animals,” Crowley said in a reference to debate in the presidential campaign over the phrase “lipstick on a pig.”

Jon Summers, a spokesman for Reid, said the report is not due until May.

“We hope the GAO will shed some unbiased light on the costs associated with nuclear waste storage — both on-site and in the proposed dump,” Summers said. “American taxpayers deserve to know the costs associated with nuclear energy, particularly as some people are pushing it as a possible solution to the nation’s energy challenges.”

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

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