By Steve Tetreault
WASHINGTON — The Department of Energy recently set a new 2048 target to open a burial site for nuclear waste — a deadline 50 years later than originally planned.
Once upon a time, the government envisioned opening a repository to hold up to 77,000 tons of high-level nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain by 1998. Later it was revised to 2020.
But delays and ultimately the termination of the Nevada program by President Barack Obama in 2009 prompted another rethinking.
A 14-page Energy Department strategy released a few weeks ago tracks a nuclear waste blue ribbon commission that issued recommendations a year ago. The document is the Obama administration’s first formal action in response to the panel.
Under the new timeline, an interim above-ground storage site would be built by 2021 to accept more than 3,600 metric tons of nuclear waste now at 14 reactor sites that have already been shut down.
A larger, temporary facility that could hold 20,000 or more metric tons of waste would be built by 2025.
The Obama administration set a goal to locate an underground, permanent disposal site by 2026, design and license it by 2042 and have it built and accepting waste for burial by 2048.
Currently, more than 68,000 metric tons of waste are stored at commercial reactor sites, with about 2,000 metric tons added to the waste stockpile each year.
The DOE did not specify locations for the projects, saying it would pursue a “consent-based” strategy to recruit volunteer states and communities.
Nye County commissioners voted 4-0 last March to capitalize on President Obama’s Blue Ribbon Committee’s consent-based approach to siting nuclear waste.
They sent off a letter to U.S. Energy Secretary Stephen Chu that said, “Nye County, Nevada hereby provides notice to you, the Secretary of Energy, that we formally consent to host the proposed repository at Yucca Mountain.” The county asked for a meeting with Chu to finalize their consent.
The county letter was met by a rebuke from Gov. Brian Sandoval, who wrote there should be no uncertainty or misunderstanding, the State of Nevada does not support the location of any such site within the state and will oppose any attempt to resurrect Yucca Mountain.
Former county commissioner Gary Hollis accused the state of violating the Nuclear Waste Policy Act as amended in 1987, which selected Yucca Mountain as the site of a geologic repository for nuclear waste.
Both sides in the debate are awaiting a decision soon from the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. on a writ of mandamus requesting the Nuclear Regulatory Commission complete the Yucca Mountain license application.
An alliance of industry and state-based groups including the Nuclear Energy Institute renewed a call for the Obama administration to revive studies of Yucca Mountain.
On Capitol Hill, Republican leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee said the report’s silence on Yucca Mountain leaves “a gaping hole in this plan.”
“We cannot have a serious conversation about solving American’s nuclear waste problems without Yucca Mountain,” Reps. Fred Upton, R-Mich., and John Shimkus, R-Ill., said in a statement.
Shimkus was one of three congressmen to tour the shuttered Yucca Mountain site in April 2011.
Afterwards he called the proposed geologic repository “a national treasure” and criticized spending $13 billion on a failed project.
Afterwards, Nye County officials hosted a meeting at the Pahrump Museum with officials from five neighboring, rural counties who reinforced their support for Yucca Mountain.
But Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., an adamant foe of the Yucca Mountain project throughout, said the administration’s strategy “is yet another critical step away from the failed Yucca Mountain project.”
“The strategy makes clear that no state, tribe or community should be forced to store nuclear waste without its expressed consent,” Reid said.
Bob Halstead, director of the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects, said 2048 is a conservative target for an underground repository. “With luck and hard work it is probably possible to trim 10 years off that” date, he said.
On the other hand, Halstead said, DOE recognized there are a number of controversial issues that must be addressed to set the nuclear waste program on a new path.
Among them, he said, is to get legislation through Congress to change the way the program is paid for, and to create a new quasi-government entity to oversee the effort.
The Energy Department “assumes that a lot of upfront work is going to have to be done,” Halstead said.
Mark Waite, senior staff writer for the Pahrump Valley Times, contributed to this report.