CD205: Nuclear Waste Storage

CD205: Nuclear Waste Storage

Nov 24, 2019

Executive Producers (3): Anonymous, Craig Porter, Robert Tingstrom

For 38 years, the United States government has been trying to figure out what to do with the radioactive nuclear waste that was created when the Defense Department developed nuclear weapons and the nuclear waste that continues to be created by nuclear power generation. In this episode, learn the history of this on-going dilemma and listen in on the debate as it currently rages in the 116th Congress.

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Hearing: Nuclear Waste Storage, Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, June 27, 2019.

Watch on C-SPAN

  • Maria Korsnick – President and CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute
  • Steven Nesbit – Nuclear Waste Policy Task Force Chair at the American Nuclear Society
  • Geoffrey Fettus – Senir Attorney at the National Resources Defense Council
  • John Wagner – Associate Director at the Idaho National Labratory’s Nuclear Science & Technology Directorate Watch on YouTube

0:50 Sen. Lisa Murkowski (AK): Beginning with the passage of the Nuclear Waste policy Act in 1982, congress has attempted several times to address the back end of the fuel cycle. In an effort to resolve an earlier stalemate, the federal government was supposed to begin taking title to use fuel and moving it to our pository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, beginning in 1998.

Manchin waste must be buried.aiff 5:30 Sen. Joe Manchin (WV):Since the National Academy of Sciences 1957 report recommending deep geologic disposal for highly radioactive waste, it is clear what we need to do with the nuclear waste. The prudent and responsible thing to do is to bury this waste deep in the earth, to protect the environment and public for generations to come. Unfortunately, the path to achieve this is not entirely clear.

7:45 Sen. Joe Manchin (WV): Failing to act means the federal government is racking up more liability to be paid to the utilities to store this waste in their own private storage facilities adjacent to the reactors. So the taxpayer is on the hook here to the tune of about $2 million a day with an estimated overall liability of $34.1 billion.

11:15 Maria Korsnick: Currently 97 commercial nuclear power plants in 29 states provide nearly 20% of the America’s electricity and more than half of the emissions free electricity.

12:00 Maria Korsnick: The US nuclear industry has upheld its end of the bargain at sites in 35 states around the country. Commercial used fuel is safely stored and managed awaiting pickup by the federal government, which was scheduled for 1998.

13:00 Maria Korsnick:But let me be clear. Congressional action is necessary and three important points must be addressed. First, we need to answer on the Yucca Mountain license application. DOE submitted the application to the NRC more than a decade ago, and Congress directed the NRC to issue a decision in 2012. This deadline, like too many was missed because DOE without basis, shut down the Yucca mountain project for the sake of the communities holding stranded used fuel wishing to redevelop their sites. We must move forward and allow Nevada’s concerns with Yucca mountain to be heard by NRC’S, independent administrative judges. This will allow a licensing decision to be determined based on its scientific merits rather than politics.

13:50 Maria Korsnick: Second, as a licensing process of Yucca mountain moves forward, interim storage can play an important role in helping move spent fuel away from reactor sites. Moving interim storage in parallel with the Yucca Mountain project helps to alleviate state and local concerns that interim storage will become a defacto disposal facility.

14:30 Maria Korsnick: And finally, the nuclear industry and electricity consumers around the country have paid their fair share to address the back end of the fuel cycle. But as 1234 was originally drafted prior to the court mandated prohibition on the fee, and I want to strongly convey the importance of not prematurely reimposing the nuclear waste fee, especially given the substantial balance and large investment interest, which accrues annually.

24:30 Steven NesbitIn addition, the money from the nuclear waste fund, the federal government has many means for providing infrastructure improvements, federal land, educational opportunities, and other means of support to states and communities interested in exploring a partnership on the management of nuclear material. Make those potential benefits abundantly clear from the beginning.

27:45 Geoffrey Fettus: The years of wrangling over what standards should be set for cleanup and are massively contaminated nuclear weapon’s sites, such as those in Washington or South Carolina is made exponentially worse by DOE self regulatory status, which the Atomic Energy Act ordains with these exemptions. The same is true with commercial spent fuel, where any state that is targeted to receive nuclear waste looks to be on the hook for the entire burden of the nation’s spent fuel. State consent and public acceptance of potential repository sites will never be willingly granted, unless and until power on how, when and where waste is disposed of is shared, rather than decided simply by Federal Fiat. There’s only one way consent can happen consistent with our cooperative federalism. Specifically, Congress can finally remove the Atomic Energy Acts. Anachronistic exemptions from our bedrock environmental laws are hazardous waste and clean water laws must include full authority over radioactivity and nuclear waste facilities, so that EPA and most importantly, the states can assert direct regulatory authority. Removing these exemptions will not magically solve this puzzle and create a final repository. But I think it can work faster than what we have now, because it will open a path forward that respects each state rather than offering up the latest one for sacrifice. The Texas and New Mexico events of the last several weeks demonstrate this.

33:15 John Wagner: First and foremost, I want to be clear from a technical standpoint. Spent nuclear fuel storage and transportation is safe as evidenced by more than 50 years of safe and secure operations by the public and private sectors. We do not have a spent nuclear fuel safety crisis in this country.

46:35 Geoffrey Fettus:The actual waste issue, honestly Senator, has not, and is not what is holding up nuclear powers ability to compete in the market. What is holding up nuclear powers ability to compete in the market are it’s gigantic upfront capital costs. The South Carolina reactors that are now a $9 billion hole in the ground at summer and Vogel now, I think is now pushing 28 billion for two new units. The likelihood of building new nuclear power is vanishingly unlikely in this [inaudible].

47:40 Sen. Joe Manchin (WV): We’re decommissioning some nuclear plants? Maria Korsnick: That’s correct. Sen. Joe Manchin (WV): Are they-, have they run their life cycle? Maria Korsnick: Not all of them. No. Sen. Joe Manchin (WV): Could they be-… Maria Korsnick: They’re being shutdown, because in the marketplace right now, the marketplace does not recognize the carbon free attribute of nuclear. It’s competing…. Sen. Joe Manchin (WV): So there’s no value to carbon free nuclear? Maria Korsnick: Not in the marketplace there’s not. There should be. And that would help. And-… Sen. Joe Manchin (WV): Are any of these plants in basically controlled PSE’s, or basically they’re all merchant? Maria Korsnick: The ones that are shutting down for the most part are merchant, not all, but for the most part.

50:40 Sen. Lamar Alexander (TN): Yeah, we have four places that we could-, four tracks we could follow to do something. We could have a Yucca mountain open, we could build a new Yucca Mountain, we could have a public interim site, or we could approve a private interim site.

54:05 Geoffrey Fettus: Texas and New Mexico would both be barred from the consent process. Clearly by the terms of the bill. Sen. Lamar Alexander (TN): And I assume from your testimony, you think they should be? Geoffrey Fettus: We think that would put us in precisely the same stalemate. It’s put us here for-…

54:20 Sen. Lamar Alexander (TN):Your testimony, you thought the private sites are because of the promise they have ought to have priority, is that correct? Maria Korsnick: We do think they should have priority. The challenge with the private sites right now, is they don’t want to be the defacto longterm storage, which keeps it connected to a long term storage answer.

59:00 Sen. Martin Heinrich (NM): What should consent look like? Geoffrey Fettus: Consent should look like regulatory authority, as simple as that. To the extent that there has been acceptance in New Mexico of the WHIP-… Sen. Martin Heinrich (NM): right… Geoffrey Fettus: …Transuranic Geologic Repository, the only operating one in the world. Sen. Martin Heinrich (NM): Why do we have that? Why do we have consent for-… Geoffrey Fettus: The only consent-, Well, it’s a little complicated and it’s not nearly the consent that needs to be there and it’s not the full regulatory authority-… Sen. Martin Heinrich (NM): But the state has…. Geoffrey Fettus: But the state has hazardous waste permitting authority, and that state can shut the place down and set terms by which it can operate after it had a fire and an explosion that shut it down and contaminated it for several years. Sen. Martin Heinrich (NM): And we reopened that facility, which I will repeat, is the only, only deep geological repository, um, that’s been successfully built that I’m aware of in this country, because of the state’s involvement.

1:02:35 Sen. Mike Lee (UT): Dr. Wagner mentioned several small reactors. How much more efficiently would these smaller reactors use fuel than reactors in past decades, and could you describe how these new forms of generating nuclear energy could possibly change our need for nuclear waste storage going forward? Maria Korsnick: Yeah, so, I guess as you look forward, there’s a variety of different types of small modular reactors that can be built, but some of the types of small modular reactors that can be built would actually be interested in using a different type of fuel. And some of that fuel could be in fact what we consider used fuel today. So in any solution set that we put in, we should remind ourselves that we want it to be retrievable. There’s 95% still good energy in what we call used fuel. It’s just in a different form. And some of these reactors that are being looked at for tomorrow, will be able to harvest that energy. Sen. Mike Lee (UT): And will be able to use it far below that 95% threshold that you described? Maria Korsnick: That’s correct. Sen. Mike Lee (UT): How low would they go? Maria Korsnick: They should be able to use the majority of that good energy. I would say, you know, you’ll be down to maybe the four to 5%, that’s left, that would then need to be stored.

1:04:40 Maria Korsnick: Sort of goes back to when we said there’s 95% still good energy in the, what we call, used fuel. It’s transformed, and so instead of being, say, uranium 235, it’s turned into uranium 238, or it’s turned into plutonium 239. So those isotopes can still release energy, but they, not in the current way in our current lightwater reactors. So in recycling, what you do is you essentially take the fuel apart and you isolate what’s good and can be used again. So that uranium, that plutonium,- it can then be mixed and you can use it in current reactors, that’s called “Mox” fuel, or you can use it for other types of reactors. So, again, it sort of closes the fuel cycle, if you will. You’re left with a very small amount that is not useful in a fuel. And France as an example, reprocesses their fuel, they turn that into a glass and then you store that inert glass. Sen. Mike Lee (UT): So the glass is inert? It’s not [inaudible] at that moment. It’s not emitting?… Maria Korsnick: It’s radioactive, but it’s not useful for fuel. So it’s stored in accordance with,-. It would it be in a deep geologic situation, but it will be a very small amount. Sen. Mike Lee (UT): No, it reduces the overall volume of what’s produced. Maria Korsnick: That’s correct. Sen. Mike Lee (UT): So why wouldn’t we do that? Maria Korsnick: So in the United States, we’ve chosen not to. We’ve chosen the fact that, and this was made in the Carter Administration, days that the fact of reprocessing, they look at it as a potential proliferation, even though there are many processes and things you could put in place to ensure that it’s done, without any kind of proliferation concerns. But that’s why the United States doesn’t currently go for reprocessing today. Sen. Mike Lee (UT): So if that decision was made in the Carter administration, when we’re talking about 40 years ago or more… Maria Korsnick: That’s correct. Sen. Mike Lee (UT): What has changed since then that might cause us to need to reconsider that? Has the technology changed in such a way that, you know, what was perceived as dangerous would no longer necessarily be deemed, made dangerous? Maria Korsnick: Well, I mean, I think we’ve proven on a lot of fronts that we are, we have the capability of managing a significant things. The government manages plutonium on a regular basis, so it obviously can be done and can be done safely.

1:07:45 Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (NV): In 1987, I believe it was, Tennessee was able to successfully remove the Oak Ridge facility as an interim storage facility changed the law. And now in this bill, Tennessee has equally, the opportunity to say no, like every other state, except Nevada. That’s all I’m looking for in my state, is those similar opportunities.

1:08:25 Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (NV): Section 306E requires a potential host state to veto or approve a site before they are fully informed of a site’s local impacts, prior to initiating a review licensing process. That essentially leaves Yucca mountain as the default sole repository. Section 506A gives parody to all other states, yet allows Yucca Mountain and other states in New Mexico, Texas, and Utah to be kept on the list without requiring their consent. And section 509 eliminates the legal 70,000 metric ton limit of waste to be stored at a repository, so if no state wants to be a host, this guarantees all the waste goes to Yucca Mountain.

1:11:00 Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (NV): Under this act, would the NEI support this act if the NWA walked away, and walked away from the Yucca Mountain project and demonstrated that a new repository project could be done more efficiently and rapidly than Yucca Mountain, would you support that? Maria Korsnick: I don’t see how another process could be done more rapidly with all of the analysis that’s already been done on Yucca. But if you found such magic place, yes, we could be supplying…. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (NV): Well, I, DOE studies have shown that walking away from Yucca Mountain and starting over with a repository in salt or shell could save billions of dollars over the life of the facility. So, and this is the challenge I’ve had, we’ve had a stalemate over the last 32 years and we have offered the opportunity to come in and work with us and find a solution for it, and I think you have that today. But unfortunately, what I see from the industry is this same old playbook and not willing to even admit there’s an opportunity to move forward. There’s not even a willingness to talk about potential new technology that can be utilized to address this safe storage, and that is my concern.

1:23:55 Sen. Angus King (ME): But if the main Yankee site is safe, why not a larger similar site that has the same technology? You’re telling me everybody says it’s safe. As an interim step until we’ve figure out what, what the best pr-, I don’t understand why we have to go from 80 temporary to permanent? Um, isn’t there a step in between that with technological…. Maria Korsnick: Well, that’s what consolidated interim storage is. Sen. Angus King (ME): That’s what I’m talking…. Maria Korsnick: Yeah, and the challenge is nobody wants to sign up for consolidated interim storage. You mentioned New Mexico. The governor just recently wrote a letter. The last New Mexico governor was in support of interim storage. The current New Mexico governor not, and the challenge is because they don’t want to become the long-term repository, and until there is an idea of a long-term repository, anybody that raises their hands for that consolidated interim storage is defacto the long,-term… Sen. Angus King (ME): I think that’s a good point because are these temporary sites are now the defacto long-term sites.

1:27:55 Maria Korsnick: If you decided today on a long term repository site, by the time you license it, let’s just select Yucca since we’ve talked about it, that would still be another three to five years just to license it today, cause all of the analysis has been done and there’s additional hearings that have to happen. Nevada has to have their say….. Sen. Joe Manchin (WV): Well, if we’re not capacity, why would we have an interim site? If you just want to carry three to five years…. Maria Korsnick: That’s just to get your license. It’s going to be another decade to build it. Alright, so you’re already talking, you have 15 years if you were on “go” today. 35 billion is what your obligation is today and in 15 years it’s going to be closer to 50 billion. So you have to manage the liability that you are building on a daily basis and the best way to help manage that liability is that interim storage, because once you start taking that fuel off site, eventually that judgment fund comes down because you don’t have to pay the judgment fee because you’ve taken the fuel in an interim state. Sen. Joe Manchin (WV): How far along are we on permitting the interim sites? Maria Korsnick: You’re nowhere. Sen. Joe Manchin (WV): So, whether we started today with interim or permanent, it’s the same timetable? Sen. John Barrasso (WY): There’s two sites that have applications in, but you know, whether they will actually go forward and construct those sites, is an open question.

1:34:40 Sen. John Barrasso (WY): American rate payers have now paid about 12, I’m sorry, $15 billion, to site, to study and to design a repository for the Yucca Mountain site and thus funding $200 million that was paid to the state of Nevada to develop their own scientific and technical analysis. So, Ms. Korsnick, why is it important for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to complete the independent safety review of the proposed Yucca mountain repository? Maria Korsnick: Well, you just mentioned the significant money that has been expended. We should have a fair hearing and quite frankly, give Nevada a chance to have their hearing. The process will require that it goes through the judges, et cetera, through the licensing process and for all this money that has been expended. Let’s understand the science and the licensing process and work ourselves through it. In the future, we might need another long-term repository. So let’s learn everything that we can and understand the science and the licensing process for the one that’s so far along.

1:45:10 Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (NV): I think we should learn from the science from Yucca Mountain because there are no natural barriers or manmade barriers that make it safe. But we keep hearing that all the time. So let me ask you this, if we were to learn from the science of Yucca Mountain, which would require still 40 more miles to, of tunnel to be, to dig the tunnel, to bury the canisters, which, by the way, the same canisters that are utilized for Yucca Mountain in the study can’t be utilized because the industry doesn’t use the same type of canisters. But what I’m told, it is so hot once it’s stored, and it leaks like a sieve because the hydrology shows already in the exploratory tunnel that it leaks like a sieve, that once the canisters are there, titanium drip shields will have to be created to put over the canisters. And by the way, those titanium drip shields would not be placed in that facility once the canisters here till 90 years later, and it cannot be placed by man in there, so you have to build the robotics to put the pipe Titanium drip shields to protect the water that goes down into the canisters that would go into the aquifer below. Is that the science that you’re saying that you would learn from that you should not have in any other repository? Steven Nesbit: What I was referring to senator, was completing the licensing process and having the concerns such as you just expressed evaluated by a panel of experts and ruled on in a manner that we can learn from them, if indeed we go on to develop other repositories elsewhere. That’s all I talked about… Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (NV): We already have the information, and that’s my point….. Steven Nesbit: Well Senator, I don’t agree with your terms…. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (NV): You spent $19 billion on a five mile exploratory tunnel to study the geology and hydrology. We know that because it’s a volcanic tuff and there’s fractures through the rock, that it’s going to leak, so that’s why the titanium drip shields are part of your plan for the canisters that will be placed there. So that’s why I’m saying we’ve already had the information that shows it’s not safe, so why are we going to waste another 30 years with 218 contentions by the state and lawsuits that I know I was part of, this attorney general against your department or, excuse me, against the Department of Energy, and instead of looking forward in a comprehensive approach and utilizing the science to help us understand, and moving forward, and the new technology that is out there, that’s all I’m looking for, and I’d love the industry to come to the table and work with us on that, so thank you. Steven Nesbit: The key question at Yucca Mountain is not whether it’s built in volcanic tuff, but whether it can or cannot comply with the very conservative environmental standards that were laid down to protect the health and safety of the public, and that’s the question that would be resolved in a licensing hearing before fair, impartial and qualified judges. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (NV): I disagree, but now that I have more time, let me add a little bit more to this. Because I think, for purposes of science, we really are. And I would ask the scientists here, isn’t the intent here to decrease any type of unexpected opportunities with respect to science? So you want an, you want a place that is safe, that you are going to decrease any vulnerabilities with respect to that deep geologic site, instead of adding to those vulnerabilities by manmade, alleged safety barriers or natural safety periods, you’re going to decrease those kinds of vulnerabilities. And isn’t that what you’re really looking for, for any type of site, a deep, geologic site and, maybe Mr. Fettus, I don’t know if you have a response to that? Geoffrey Fettus: I couldn’t agree more Senator Cortez Masto. The idea behind any geological repositories to find geologic media that can isolate the waste for that length of time, it’s dangerous. And the problem that the Yucca Mountain project has repeatedly run into is, whenever it ran into the technical challenges that you so accurately described, the response was to weaken the standards, to allow the site to be licensed. So we don’t look at the upcoming atomic safety and licensing board proceeding, if it were to ever go forward as as a full exercise and having the state have a fair say.

Advanced Nuclear Technology: Protecting U.S. Leadership and Expanding Opportunities for Licensing New Nuclear Energy Technologies, Committee on Environment and Public Works: Subcommittee on Clean Air and Nuclear Safety, June 4, 2019

  • Chris Levesque – CEO at TerraPower
  • William Magwood – Director General at the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency

26:35 William Magwood: About 30 companies around the world are vying to develop game changing technologies, most of them working in gen four concepts. While ithere is great hope and enthusiasm at each of these companies, it’s important to note that developing a new light water technology and shepherding it through regulatory approval costs at least a billion and a half. Generation four technologies will cost substantially more, and this is before billions are spent on demonstration facilities. The typical company working to develop an innovative nuclear technology today has perhaps a dozen engineers and scientists devoted to the technology efforts and access to tens of millions of dollars. In comparison, I recently visited the Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics, which is developing a molten salt reactor technology. Molton salt reactors are a gen four technology that is high interest to several private sector companies because it represents the path of extraordinarily safe and efficient nuclear reactors. They have the potential as consume waste rather than generate it. The project in China has currently over 400 scientist and engineers hard at work developing this technology with plans to build a demonstration reactor the next decade.

31:20 Chris Levesque: Demonstrating new nuclear technologies is the most important step to jumpstart an advanced U.S.nNuclear industry and compete globally. No company can commercialize advanced nuclear technology until it is demonstrated. Federal supportive demonstration efforts has driven down costs for technologies like solar, wind, and hydraulic fracturing. We need a similarly ambitious effort to demonstrate a portfolio of advanced nuclear reactors. This will take increased public private cooperation, and we need to start this now.

54:00 Chris Levesque: One thing the government and specifically this committee has done very right, I think, is the passage of NIMA because that really empowers our safety regulator to entertain these advanced reactor designs. So thank you for that support. And one area where improvement is needed, I think, and the committee has already focusing on this is with NELA, the Nuclear Energy Leadership Act. We really need a demonstration project. We need multiple demonstration projects in the U.S. where we actually design, build, and demonstrate advanced technologies. Otherwise this will all be talk and we won’t realize this, this new technology in the United States.

59:00 Sen. Mike Braun (IN): So you mentioned computer modeling as a difference. Give me some other differences so I can easily understand what generation one and two is then what this miracle might be if we ever see it. Chris Levesque: Yeah. So this is leading to some of the benefits of advanced reactors. And this applies to many of the technologies. These are now low pressure systems. They’re systems that have inherent safety, meaning we don’t need a lot of extra mechanical and electrical systems.Sen. Mike Braun (IN): Can they store fuel onsite when it’s spent? Chris Levesque: Well, they do require onsite fuel storage and some of them require a future geological repository which the U.S. government is working on. But many of these technologies like Terra Power’s also because of the computer modeling, they have very advanced physics to the core that generate much lower waste at the end of the fuel cycle, up to an 80% reduction in that waste. And so that’s why China and Russia, even though they’re building plants that are much like what we developed in the U.S, they have their eyes on these advanced reactor designs and really the U.S, because of our national lab complex and our legacy from those plants I mentioned… Sen. Mike Braun (IN): But they’re not built yet? They’re still in the developmental stage? Chris Levesque: We are really the best poised… The U S has a leadership opportunity here that if we don’t take it, China and Russia will. But we are best situated today to take leadership on advanced reactors. And if we don’t, China and Russia will in a very short period of time. The time to act is now, as in this year, we need to begin work on demonstration of advanced reactors.

1:05:30 Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (RI): And Mr. Levesque, one of my earliest exposures to Terra Power involved the proposition that the technology had the promise of allowing us to go back through the currently just sitting there, nuclear waste stockpiles that we have for which we have no plan and actually be able to utilize that and repurpose it as fuel and turn, as I said in my opening remarks, a liability into an asset. Is that still a focus of Terra Power? Will it remain a focus of Terra Power? Is that a focus of the industry? And what can we do to help make sure it remains the focus of the next gen or gen four industry? Chris Levesque: Senator, you’re pointing to a very, a major capability of, of advanced reactors. Today’s reactors only use about 5% of the fissile material before the reactor has to be shut down and the fuel is removed. It’s just the way the physics work. Advanced reactors, including Terra Power’s design, much more completely uses that fuel. Now, Terra Power’s designs today plan on using depleted uranium, which is the waste product of the enrichment process. We can use either depleted uranium or natural uranium to fuel the traveling wave reactor. hHowever, this entire new family of advanced reactors does offer the potential to go and look at spent fuel. Of course, we, you know, we’re waiting for the U S to develop a geologic repository for spent fuel. But advanced nuclear technologies do allow you the opportunity to go look at what amount of fissile material is remaining in that spent fuel and is there a way to utilize more of it? So that’s yet another benefit of advanced reactors.

1:07:30 Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (RI): If I may make a comment, Mr. Chairman, I know that you made from a very strong business background and if we were running United States incorporated, the liability of all that nuclear waste we have stockpiled all around the country and dozens of sites would show up when your auditors came and when you did your financial reporting to your shareholders, they would say here on the debit side of the column is this liability that you have for having to deal with this nuclear waste at some point, and if it was a $500 million liability, you’d have an incentive to spend up to $499 million to clean it up. But because we’re the United States of America, not the United States incorporated, there is no place where it shows up in our balance sheet and so we really don’t have that persistent economic incentive that a corporation would have to deal with it as a national issue. There’s a bit of a carbon price flavor to the point I’m trying to make, but there’s also, this is like the reverse of it. There’s this liability and there’s no way in which, as I can see it, that a Terra Power or somebody else can say, okay, there’s a $500 million problem, that means I can come up with a $200 million solution and then we can split the difference and we’re making like $150 million and my business sense gets motivated. My innovation juices start to flow to solve that problem. Instead of just sits there and the stuff has sat there for decades and we’re waiting for the magic solution to go put it in Yucca mountain or someplace. But I don’t see that happening without a revolt from Nevada. So we need to, I think there’s an economic solution here as well. If this was a pure business proposition, there’d be a lot more energy in solving it because there’d be this account that was dragging on our balance sheet saying, fix me, fix me, fix me.

Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and Hazardous Materials, June 1, 2011.

  • Peter Lyons – then Assistant Energy Secretary for Nuclear Energy
  • Gregory Friedman – then Energy Department Inspector General
  • Martin Malsch – Attorney representing the State of Nevada.
  • Christopher Kouts – Former Acting Director of Civilian Radioactive Waster Management at the US Department of Energy

20:00 Rep. Shelley Berkley (NV): Thank you for inviting me to testify today. Let’s get right to the point. Nevadans had been saying no to Yucca Mountain for decades and we will continue shouting “No” at the top of our lungs until this effort to shove nuclear waste down our throats is ended. I don’t know who you met with, but I can tell you the latest poll polls show that 77% of the people of the state of Nevada don’t want nuclear waste stored at Yucca Mountain. Why? Because we don’t want our home turned into a nuclear garbage dump and we oppose more wasteful spending on a $100 billion dinosaur in the Nevada desert that should have gone extinct years ago. I know members of this committee will hear today from others who will say that Nevada’s efforts to stop the dump is all political and it’s nothing to do with science. Hogwash! The truth is that Nevada’s opposition has always been based on the danger that Yucca mountain poses to our state and our nation. Make no mistake, the Yucca Mountain project was born of politics starting with the infamous 1987 Screw Nevada bill. And why was it politics? Because the state of Nevada had a very small delegation at that time and we were unable to protect the state from the 49 others. You want to talk about science? There’s no radiation standards that currently exist because there’s no way to create radiation standards to protect the public from nuclear waste with a 300,000 year half shelf-life. Originally, they were going to store nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, then they realized there were groundwater problems, so we were going to store it in containers with a titanium shield to protect it from the dripping water. Then they realized that wasn’t enough, cause the titanium shields were going to erode. So then they were going to build concrete bunkers to contain the titanium shields that contain the canisters. And then, the last secretary of energy in the Bush administration actually said he was going to create an army of robots that were going to go down to Yucca mountain because man can’t go down there, and to be able to protect us from the, the nuclear waste leakage. This legislation, the Screw Nevada bill, did away with any pretense of science when it eliminated every other site under consideration as a dump location. At the same time, the nuclear industry and its allies have worked for years to silence Nevada’s criticism and to minimize the fact that the proposed dump is located smack in the middle of an active earthquake zone. This is an area that has been rocked by violent earthquakes in the recent past and we know the risks it creates. Proponents of the dump have also sought to dismiss scientific finding, showing that water will enter Yucca mountain causing rapid corrosion of waste canisters and resulting in release of dangerous radioactive materials. And dump backers have worked tirelessly to downplay the risk to millions of Americans living along the transportation routes from decades of waste shipments barreling down our nation’s roads and railways, with each canister a potential terrorist target or accident waiting to happen, whether caused by human error, mechanical failure, or a deliberate 911 style strike, a massive release of these deadly materials threatens to kill or injure Americans to release radioactive contamination and to shut down major portions of our interstate highway system and rail system. When it comes to plans for Yucca Mountain, the fact remains that you can never eliminate the risks that will accompany shipping nuclear waste across more than 40 states, through communities utterly unprepared to deal with radioactive contamination. We’re talking about shipments, passing homes, hospitals, schools, every single day for four decades, and even more incredible, at the end of those 40 years, there will even be more waste in the cooling ponds than there were when the shipments began, and that’s because as long as the plant is operating, some amount of nuclear waste will always remain at the nuclear facility, and that is why the threat posed by Yucca Mountain must be weighed against the availability of dry cask storage as an affordable solution to this problem and it’s available today. Using this method, we can secure waste at existing sites and hardened containers, where they can remain for the next hundred years until we figure out what to do with this garbage. The nuclear industry is already utilizing dry cask storage at various locations around the U.S.. There’s no reason we should not require plans to begin moving waste right now from cooling pools into hardened containers. In conclusion, Nevada remains in case you don’t already know, opposed to more wasteful spending on a failed $100 billion project that threatens lives, the environment and the economy of my community and others across the nation. I will lay my body down on those railroad tracks to prevent any train that has nuclear waste in it from going to Yucca Mountain. I make that pledge to you and the people I represent. Nuclear waste can remain on existing sites and dry cask storage for the next century, giving us time to find an actual solution to replace the failed Yucca Mountain project and if anybody watched what was happening in Japan, and still has the audacity to suggest this for the people of our country, shame on us all! And Germany just announced that they were ending their nuclear program because they have no way to safely store nuclear waste. If Germany can figure that out, by gosh, the United States of America should be able to figure that out too. I yield back the balance of my time.

29:00 Rep. Doc Hastings (WA): What is truly not workable is the uncertainty that faces our commercial nuclear power industry, as they look to a future that may require them to house spent nuclear fuel on a site for decades because there is no geological repository ready to accept it.

30:15 Rep. Doc Hastings (WA):My district is home to the Hanford nuclear site. Part of the top secret Manhattan project that developed and constructed the first atomic bomb. The work done at Hanford helped win WW II and later provided the nuclear deterrents that helped defeat communism and end the Cold War. Today, Hanford is the world’s largest, the world’s largest environmental cleanup project, and the high level defense nuclear waste at Hanford is slated to be shipped to the national repository at Yucca Mountain. Right now, the Department of Energy is building, right now, a building, a critical $12 billion plant that will treat 53 million gallons of high level defense waste currently stored in underground tanks at Hanford and turn it into safe, stable glass logs that are scheduled to be stored at Yucca Mountain. The waste treatment plant, which is a $12 billion plant, which is over halfway done, is being built to beat specifications designed to match the geological structure and makeup of Yucca Mountain.

32:00 Rep. Doc Hastings (WA): Delaying or abandoning Yucca Mountain means that Hanford will be home to high-level defense waste even longer. The federal government’s legal commitment to our state won’t be kept, and clean up progress at Hanford will be jeopardized. With more defense waste slated to go to Yucca mountain than any other state in the union, the stakes for my state of Washington cannot be higher and the risks could be not more, not more real.

32:30 Rep. Doc Hastings (WA): In addition, Richland, which is just south of the Hanford project, is the home to Pacific northwest only commercial nuclear power plant, the Columbia Generating Station. The spent nuclear fuel from this plant is also slated to go to Yucca mountain, but without Yucca opening, the spent fuel will have to be kept onsite for an unknown amount of time, at great expense to the taxpayers and rate payers.

1:33:00 Rep. Jay Inslee (WA): This is very disturbing on a couple of bases. One is, in my state, the state of Washington, we have people very diligently trying to follow their obligations legally and in their profession, getting this waste ready to ship to Yucca. They’re going to be ready to ship 9,700 canisters to Yucca. They’re doing their job, but the department’s not doing its job. Now that’s on a local concern, but on a national concern, I just think this situation is one of a failed state. You know, they talk about fail states around the world? This- because of the failure to follow the clear law here, this is the equivalency of a failed state. We reached a national decision. It is unpopular in one local part and a beautiful part of the country, as it will be in any part of the country that we ever have this decision made and yet we can’t execute a decision. Now this, this sort of flagrant statement that social acceptance is now a legal criteria, I don’t understand. I just ask Dr. Lyon, how are we ever to build anything like a nuclear waste repository anywhere in the United States if social acceptance is a mandatory criteria to build something? Dr. Peter Lyons: I use the example in my testimony of the waste isolation pilot plant in New Mexico, which has the strongest local acceptance, and I noted that there are a number of international examples where with careful education, with transparent processes, there has been strong acceptance of repository programs.

1:35:00 Rep. Jay Inslee (WA): And obviously in the decision making of the department based on the best science and geology and hydrology, we decided Nevada was the best place. But now you’re telling me we’re gonna maybe look for a less scientifically credible, less geologically stable, less hydrologically isolated place because we might get a little better social acceptance. That is a failed policy by a failed state and I have to just tell you, regardless who the administration is, in an abject failure to follow federal law here is most disturbing and it’s unacceptable. And I don’t really want to think I want to belabor you with too many more questions. I just want to tell you it’s unacceptable by any administration of any party to make a decision when we’re dealing with this number of curies of radiation based on social acceptance is an, is just a, not a, a winner for this country.

1:41:43 Gregory Friedman: Approximately 10% of Yucca mountain was designated as I am, as I recall, for a high level defense waste and spent nuclear-, defense spent nuclear waste. My understanding is that the current inventory of waste in that category exceeded, exceeds even the 10% of the Yucca mountain that was set, reserved for that purpose originally.

2:07:00 Martin Malsch: The original 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy act forsaw many of the problems which that now afflict the Yucca mountain program. Among other things, it sought fairness and redundancy by requiring multiple sites from which to choose ultimate locations for repositories and it’s strove for regional equity by setting up site selection programs for two facilities, one in the west and one in the east. However, all this was scrapped in 1987. Congress decreed that all repository development efforts must focus now on just one site in Nevada and it did so not withstanding incomplete scientific information and the fact that now spent reactor fuel and high level waste from every region in the country would now be sent to a single western state with no nuclear power plants or high level waste generating facilities. After 1987, there was only one possible site and inevitably as more and more dollars were spent, it became progressively more difficult to admit that the selection of Yucca Mountain had been a mistake. But we know now things we did not know in 1987. We now know that groundwater will reach the wastes at the site in about 50 years, not the hundreds or thousands of years it had been originally thought. We now know the Yucca Mountain is not dry. Total of water seepage into the tunnels where the waste will be located will be as much as 130,000 kilograms per year. These and other serious problems led to even more exotic and doubtful engineering fixes. When it appeared likely that the Yucca Mountain site could not satisfy certain EPA and NRC licensing requirements, the requirements were simply eliminated. These actions by Congress and then by EPA DOE and NRC destroyed the credibility of the program.

2:18:00 Christopher Kouts: Because the development of Yucca mountain has been such a contentious and protracted process, it is being suggested that only consensual siting of these facilities should be pursued. I would submit to the subcommittee that the U.S. and international experience in this area proves otherwise. In my discussions over the years with the directors of repository programs abroad, they have consistently expressed their concerns that due to the very long time frame to repository programs take to develop, any political consensus at the beginning can evaporate with one election, just as it has in the U.S. with Yucca Mountain. At the end of the day, implementing a repository program requires steady, consistent national leadership.

Nuclear Waste Storage, House Energy and Commerce Committee, April 18, 2002

  • Jim Gibbons – then Representative followed by Governor of Nevada from 2007 to 2011
  • Spencer Abraham – Secretary of Energy from 2001-2005

41:45 Rep. Jim Gibbons (NV): The disposal of the nation’s high level nuclear waste has been and remains an important issue for many Americans. However, for the past 20 years it has been the single most important issue for the state of Nevada. And just as a historical note, Mr Chairman, the Nuclear Waste Policy act of 1982 as amended in 1987, selected Nevada and Yucca Mountain as the sole site to be studied for consideration of a nuclear repository. It’s very important to note Mr Chairman, under this law and its subsequent amendment, a finding that the site is suitable to become a high level waste repository for the next 10,000 years would require and I repeat, would require that the site be determined “geologically sound”. Mr Chairman, as the person who holds a Master of Science degree from the University of Nevada in geology, I’m probably one of the few geologists in Congress, but I can tell you having looked at this, Yucca mountain is not, nor will it ever be geologically sound. If the site is geologically sound, why so much cost on the engineering aspect of this project? The answer is, you cannot spend enough money to make a mountain geologically sound. What will the DOI, DOE realize is that they can spend enough to make the manmade engineering barrier sound? The problem is that is not what the law requires. If you look at the fine print and if you look hard enough, you’ll see that the DOE has failed to prove Yucca mountain’s geologic suitability and they have made promises that they cannot keep. How do I know this and how do the American people know this? Because once DOE started digging and actually studying Yucca Mountain, they realized they would have to change the rules in order to meet the suitability standards mandated by Congress in the act. And what the DOE found out was this,-one, rates of water infiltration into the mountain are on the order of 100 times higher than previously thought. Two, credible studies indicate a significant presence of Basaltic volcanism in and around Yucca Mountain. Three, with Nevada ranking third in the nation in seismic activity, it has been determined that there have been nearly 700 cases of earthquake or seismic activity of 2.5 magnitude on a Richter scale or more near Yucca Mountain since 1976, that’s 700 occurrences. In fact, about 10 years ago, a 5.6 level earthquake occurred less than 10 miles from Yucca Mountain and actually caused some damage to nearby DOE facilities. So what has been the DOE response to these findings? Findings that even the DOE themselves acknowledge? They retroactively changed the rules for site suitability. They moved the goalpost. You see, the DOE cannot prove Yucca Mountain’s capability of serving as a longterm high level nuclear waste repository that is geologically sound. Their response? Adopt new rules, permitting the agency to rely entirely on man-made waste packages. Mr Chairman, I ask, is this what Congress intended? I don’t think so.

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