Government Report Finds Obama Administration's Haste to Terminate Yucca Mountain Nuclear Repository Could Set Back Effort 20 Years

May 9, 2011

WASHINGTON, DC - Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI) today released an extensive report compiled by the Government Accountability Office examining the ramifications of the Obama administration and Energy Secretary Chu's decision to withdraw the license application for a high-level waste and spent nuclear fuel repository at Yucca Mountain, located adjacent to the Nevada Test Site. The report comes after an October 2009 request by Energy and Commerce Republican leaders for GAO to identify the consequences of the actions taken by DOE and the basis for DOE's decision to abandon Yucca Mountain.

Upton and Environment and the Economy Subcommittee Chairman John Shimkus (R-IL) are conducting an investigation into the administration's decision to terminate the Yucca Mountain project. That investigation has already revealed significant internal legal and policy dissent from within the Nuclear Regulatory Commission about the administration's decision.  The GAO estimates that nearly $15 billion has been spent on the Yucca Mountain repository since 1983, $9.5 billion of which has been directly collected from the public's electric bills. 

"The ongoing situation in Japan further underscores that our national security demands a coherent nuclear policy to safely and permanently store spent nuclear fuel," said Chairman Upton. "It is alarming for this administration to discard 30 years of research and billions of taxpayer dollars spent, not for technical or safety reasons, but rather to satisfy temporary political calculations.  Now, it appears the Obama administration's work to derail the Yucca repository over the last two years may have set back our bipartisan efforts by two decades. Our nuclear future requires visionary leadership as we seek a long-term solution to our spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste."

Among GAO's key findings:

"¢ DOE actions to dismantle the Yucca Mountain program, after decades of effort and nearly $15 billion in spending, were based on political reasons and not based on scientific or technical reasons. The justification provided GAO was that "the Secretary believes" there are better solutions that can achieve improved local support for a repository.  The report cites "social and political opposition to a permanent repository, not technical issues, is the key obstacle."

"¢ The methods of termination chosen by DOE will make the shutdown difficult to reverse if the agency reconsiders its decision or is compelled (e.g. by Courts or Congress) to resurrect the program and will thus deprive the public of valuable information. 

o The agency terminated the program without formally assessing the risks of shutting down, contrary to federal policy and guidance for planning and assessing risks of termination. "Several DOE officials told GAO they had never seen such a large program with so much pressure to close down so quickly."

o DOE made minimal effort to preserve project staff.  Reconstituting knowledgeable and experienced staff will be difficult, should the license application process resume.  DOE elected not to proceed with the prime contractor's $2.8 million proposal for "knowledge retention packages."

o The NRC, meanwhile, took actions through budget decision-making that also could hinder resumption of license review - reassigning staff, closing down staff technical review and analysis of the repository license application, and closing out the review activities of the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board, which denied DOE's motion to withdraw the license. 

o Failure of NRC staff to provide findings on the technical merits of the Yucca license application - a result of NRC's improper actions to shutdown review - would deprive scientists and the public of valuable information that could be applied to future efforts, even if Yucca were not pursued as a repository.

o An accurate accounting of property at the Yucca Mountain site was not maintained.

·         GAO notes that "there is no guarantee that a more acceptable alternative [to Yucca Mountain] will be identified."  Moreover, termination could set back opening a geologic repository twenty years.  In the meantime:

o    The $9.5 billion dollars from the Nuclear Waste Fund spent on a terminated Yucca facility will mean there may not be enough funding in the Nuclear Waste Fund to site, license, and construct a replacement facility someplace else - and thus result in more taxpayer expenditures.

o    Termination would restart a time-consuming and costly process.  Even temporary centralized storage would take 17 to 33 years to site, license, and construct, and cost billions of dollars, GAO estimates.  Long term on-site storage, followed by eventual centralized or permanent disposal, could cost additional tens of billions more in taxpayer dollars.

o    Termination will add to taxpayer burdens, by increasing the substantial liability costs for DOE's failure to take custody of spent nuclear fuel. These costs presently amount to $15.4 billion if Yucca were to open as planned in 2020 and will increase by an estimated $500 million for each year delay after that.

Read the entire report HERE.

 

###