Growing opposition to proposed nuclear waste storage sites in Texas and New Mexico has kept Yucca Mountain in Nevada in the national debate over what to do with the growing stockpile of radioactive material scattered around the country.
The Biden administration opposes Yucca Mountain and this month announced plans to send trash to places state, local and tribal governments agree to accept. This position is shared by Nevada’s elected officials, tribal leaders, and economic and environmental groups.
But until the 1987 Nuclear Waste Policy Act was amended by Congress, the proposed radioactive waste repository 90 miles north of Las Vegas remained the designated permanent storage site for spent fuel rods from the United States. commercial nuclear power plants.
“That’s what worries me. Until you put a policy in place, it will always be something you have to watch out for, ”US Representative Dina Titus, D-Nevada, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
An expert on atomic testing and American politics, Titus as a professor at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas wrote a book in 1986 on Nevada’s nuclear past.
As elected state and congressional lawmaker, she opposed a permanent storage facility at Yucca Mountain.
Titus has introduced legislation in previous sessions of Congress that adopts the recommendations of a 2012 Blue Ribbon Commission under the Obama administration to send the waste to states that want it.
Similar legislation was introduced in the Senate by Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nevada, a former state attorney general who also fought federal efforts to build a depot at Yucca Mountain.
The legislation has not been passed as lawmakers on both sides representing states with nuclear power plants seek a quick fix to waste disposal.
“I have always fought ill-advised efforts to deposit nuclear waste in Nevada, and I will continue to work with the Nevada delegation to pass my consent-based siting bill that would ensure that such hazardous material is never dumped in our state, ”Cortez Masto said. .
The Biden administration has since offered to fund interim storage in light of the 30-year standoff on Yucca Mountain, due to the growing need to deal with radioactive waste stockpiles at decommissioned and operating factories across the country.
In 2019, around 86,000 metric tonnes of used nuclear fuel were stored at 119 sites, according to the Department of Energy.
There are approximately 95 power plants operating in 29 states, currently generating 2,900 metric tonnes per year. And, there are 38 reactors in 30 states in various stages of decommissioning. The waste is stored in drums, former Energy Department adviser Robert Alvarez said at an Environmental and Energy Study Institute briefing last year.
The Government Accountability Office, the investigative body of Congress, released a report in September recommending that the waste be stored in places where local and state authorities would agree to accept it. The report cited the hazardous characteristics of nuclear waste and the need for safe disposal.
Energy Secretary Jen Granholm announced this month that the department is seeking recommendations from states, cities, industry officials and others on where officials are willing to accept. fuel and spent materials.
The plan announced by Granholm is expected to take up to two years to research and determine costs.
The plan announced by the Department of Energy essentially restarts a process that began under the Obama administration with a recommendation from a Blue Ribbon commission that suggested “consent-based localization” with local input as the most effective means. to develop storage sites.
This did not happen in Nevada.
Yucca Mountain was designated by Congress as the only permanent storage site in 1987 after other sites in Kansas, Tennessee and Utah were rejected. Since then, more than $ 15 billion has been spent on research and exploration at Yucca Mountain.
Local opposition in Nevada, led by former Democratic Senator Harry Reid and other state officials, blocked development of the project, until President George W. Bush ordered the Department of Energy to apply for a building permit to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
The clearance process, however, was halted by President Barack Obama and by Reid, who, as Senate Majority Leader, withdrew funding from the request. A federal court has allowed funds already earmarked for licensing to continue to be spent.
The election of President Donald Trump gave new impetus to the licensing of Energy Secretary Rick Perry, who, like Bush, was a former governor of Texas. Despite political opposition from former Republican Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval and the state’s entire Congressional delegation, the Trump administration pushed to develop Yucca Mountain.
Perry has repeatedly told Congress that he is following the 1987 law as he moves forward on licensing nuclear storage at the designated Yucca Mountain site.
But Trump then did an about-face on Yucca Mountain as he sought re-election with Nevada as part of his campaign strategy.
After the election, the Biden administration budgeted funding for commercial operators to take control of some waste at the staging sites.
ALTERNATIVES TO THE OPPOSITION
Texas-based Interim Storage Partners received approval from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in September to store 5,000 metric tonnes at an interim facility in Andrews County, located in the Permian Basin region.
But Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has led Texas opposition to the interim storage site, facing a federal court challenge, opposing the transportation of hazardous waste across the state and raising concerns that the facility may become de facto a permanent deposit.
In a refrain heard for decades in Nevada, Abbott declared that “Texas will not become America’s nuclear waste dump”.
Titus called Texas officials dishonest. “They thought it was good when they tried to put it here,” Titus joked.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is also expected to approve interim storage at another site in southeastern New Mexico operated by Holtec International, which has been invited by local officials and a local energy alliance to submit an application for waste storage.
New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, is leading opposition to the interim storage facility, citing safety and environmental concerns also mentioned by officials in Nevada and Texas.
Opponents also point to the 1987 law which designates the Nevada site as the only one for filing.
But the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission determined that changes to the 1987 law were not necessary to allow a temporary installation, and the full commission agreed, the spokesperson said. David McIntyre.
He noted that the matter is under review by the courts.
Holtec maintains that it can provide safe and secure storage on an interim basis for waste currently scattered across the country. The company plans to build a facility to start storing the waste as early as 2024, said Joe Delmar, senior director of government affairs and communications.
“Spent fuel and high-level waste can be safely stored until the federal government identifies a permanent solution,” Delmar said.
The French have been using recycled nuclear fuel since the 1970s with technology developed by the United States. The process was banned in 1977 in that country by President Jimmy Carter because of concerns about the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
Still, waste reprocessing is mentioned as an alternative, or partial solution, to the problem by the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry’s advocacy group.
Some proponents see reprocessing as an economical carrot to attract storage. In Nevada, Nye County officials see storage alone as a potential economic stimulus for their jurisdiction, where Yucca Mountain is located, as it could generate well-paying jobs and local tax revenue.
There are currently no plans for a used nuclear fuel reprocessing plant under consideration in the United States.
And a South Carolina Department of Energy plant that aimed to turn military-grade plutonium into nuclear fuel was shut down in 2018 by the Trump administration. Although it is 70% complete, construction of the plant has been halted for reasons of national defense.
Titus said the costs of building reprocessing plants are prohibitive, although she does not oppose recycling spent fuel.
NON VIABLE YUCCA
The Government Accountability Office report says most experts agree that building Yucca Mountain is neither socially nor politically viable.
“Congress should consider amending the Nuclear Waste Policy Act to authorize a new consent-based process for siting, development and construction of consolidated interim storage and permanent repository facilities. for commercial spent nuclear fuel, ”the report recommends.
He also recommended that Congress direct the Department of Energy to develop a strategy for the transport of spent fuel and the management of temporary and permanent repositories in order to resolve the waste problem.
But congressional inaction is blamed in the report for the 30-year deadlock on waste disposal.
And lawmakers in the House and Senate, who represent communities with operating or decommissioned plants, continue to view Yucca Mountain as part of the long-term solution for nuclear waste storage.
“This is why I will never let my guard down,” Titus told the Review-Journal.