Officials discuss Yucca Mountain, growing nuclear waste storage problem

Officials laid out their varying opinions on what the nation should do about growing nuclear waste during the panel titled “Yucca Mountain – Is There Still a Pulse?” that took place during the American Nuclear Society Winter Meeting and Expo at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas.

During a three-hour panel on Nov. 7, state and federal officials pondered whether Yucca Mountain is a feasible place to store the nation’s high-level nuclear waste.

Andy Griffith, deputy assistant secretary for spent fuel and waste disposition at the Department of Energy, talked about the about the consent-based siting initiative that was launched a year ago.

“It is a complex issue and it’s not one that is easily solved and it’s not just a matter of the future of nuclear, I think it’s a matter of being responsible for the waste that’s accumulated so far,” Griffith said about the nation’s nuclear waste.

Commercial electricity generation has produced approximately 75,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel at the end of 2015 and continues to generate spent nuclear fuel at a rate of about 2,000 tons per year.

Most of the spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste are currently stored at the locations where they were generated.

Griffith said the DOE had received numerous responses from interested parties since it started the consent-based siting initiative. The organization also has gotten through the number of activities that helped to define an integrated waste management system.

“In addition to that siting process, we also have to develop what we would consider part of the integrated waste management system,” he said. “This would be a system that’s flexible, a system that’s resilient to unforeseen events or operational variations.”

Griffith said he believes the organization has advanced on a broad range of areas managing the nation’s waste.

”We know a new administration is going to come with their own set of priorities and what we hope is, what we’ve done can play a role in the priorities in the next administration,” he said.

The meeting was held a day before the presidential election. On Tuesday, Bloomberg News reported that “Yucca Mountain is set to be revived with the arrival of President-elect Donald Trump in Washington and the departure of the project’s most ardent Senate opponent, Harry Reid.”

Two people familiar with Trump’s transition planning say the issue is actively being discussed as a wave of nuclear power plant retirements intensifies pressure to find a permanent home for more than 70,000 metric tons of radioactive waste now stored at those facilities, according to the report.

At the Nov. 7 meeting, Bob Halstead, executive director of the state’s Nuclear Waste Project Office, restated Nevada’s opposition to Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository.

“I think it’s a bad idea to restart the Yucca Mountain project,” he said. “The political opposition is very strong on the part of the elected leadership.”

He said restarting the project is more difficult than restarting the licensing proceeding. The existing 218 admitted technical contentions from the state of Nevada pose a big obstacle to the licensing process, he said.

“We are planning to submit some additional contentions based on new information in the (environmental impact statement) supplement that NRC staff just completed,” Halstead said. “If the licensing proceeding goes forward, the only positive thing that I can see is to put forward the framework of extended consent rights.”

Alec Hoppes, senior director of government affairs and advocacy at Areva said enacting any sort of comprehensive legislative package on nuclear waste is going to remain a tall order.

“Obviously, with the retirement of Senator Reid, things are going to be different,” Hoppes said. “Without question, Senator Reid played a very vital role in shaping where we are today. He has been strategic, focused, effective in leveraging the Senate power processes to hold on Yucca Mountain and reduce funding to zero level. And with Senator Reid leaving the field, it will weaken the opposition to Yucca Mountain.”

Over the next 12 months, the fundamental pulse check for Yucca Mountain will be the result that could be accomplished through the appropriations, said Hoppes, who works with the French multinational group Areva specializing in nuclear power and renewable energy headquartered in Paris.

“I think it’s important that we allow the NRC to continue its license activities,” he said. “I think it’s appropriate to determine a lot of what is workable and what is not in this space, and I think, ultimately, the national interest deserves some of the clarity that the NRC process can offer.”

Nye County Commissioner Dan Schinhofen reiterated the county’s position on the project.

“We can get past Yucca Mountain if the state would agree to have the licensing process. Nye County is not saying, ‘Give it to us no matter what,’” he said.

He called Yucca Mountain a “national security issue” and questioned whether a consent-based siting process could work.

“Nobody wants it if it’s not safe, but we will kick this can down the road if we don’t move forward with it,” he said.

“The idea to walk away from $15 billion (that was spent on the project) in 30 years, in my opinion, is ridiculous,” he said.

Mike Voegele, former Yucca Mountain chief scientist, said restarting the project would require “some level of demonstration of technical adequacy” of the Yucca Mountain site.

“I think we have to clear all of these perceptions that closure of Yucca Mountain was due to scientific inadequacy. It was political,” Voegele said.

Voegele said at a minimum, officials should complete the licensing hearings. He argued that would provide a basis for Congress to assess the feasibility of Yucca Mountain program.

He also said the only two scenarios are to follow a Nuclear Waste Policy Act or develop a new policy.

“Whatever path forward we come up with, has to be based on either the national will to follow the Nuclear Waste Policy Act or the will of the collective Congress to develop new policy,” Voegele said.

The American Nuclear Society is a not-for-profit organization that is focused on advancing the peaceful use of nuclear science and technology.

Contact reporter Daria Sokolova at On Twitter: @dariasokolova77