The federal government has spent $7 billion studying the abandoned Yucca Mountain project, a site in the Nevada desert seen for decades by its backers as the best hope for a permanent graveyard for toxic nuclear waste stockpiling at the Oconee Nuclear Station and across South Carolina.
Now, but a fraction of that cost — $11.1 million — remains, and a recent appeals court ruling mandates that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission find some way to spend it.
But should it be spent? And how?
Nuclear regulators say they are caught in limbo: Congress hasn’t passed a law that says definitively that the project is dead, and the money isn’t enough to do anything meaningful.
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Republicans in South Carolina are convinced that the project still has breath. They point to what they say is a government agency — driven by partisan politics — hiding key information that would prove Yucca Mountain is scientifically sound.
Nuclear watchdogs say the court ruling is “only a symbolic gesture” and “will have no impact on the status of the project.”
One longtime South Carolina Democrat — U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn of Orangeburg — has dropped his support for Yucca Mountain as a permanent disposal site and has instead shifted his focus to New Mexico.
Meanwhile, more and more spent fuel is created each day as the government is on the hook for the millions spent in court over its broken promises to store the nation’s waste permanently.
The House and Senate are split between feuding parties — and there’s no indication that Yucca Mountain will be receiving more money anytime soon.
Three years ago, the NRC ceased its review of a license to operate Yucca Mountain, after the Department of Energy, once a proponent before Democrats took over the presidency and the Senate, pulled its application.
The U.S. District Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled 2-1 that the NRC had no right to cease work on the license review, because Congress mandated that Yucca Mountain be reviewed as part of the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act.
The appeals court took no side on whether the project is viable nor how the money should be spent, but ordered it to restart the license review with what was left.
One dissenting judge wrote that the court’s decision would force the NRC to do the equivalent of unpacking boxes only to repack them.
The agency has yet to decide how it will proceed as it awaits suggestions from parties to a lawsuit filed by the state of South Carolina to get the project back on track.
The NRC has until Sept. 27 to appeal the court’s ruling.
“It would be best not to waste the remaining funds and to instead focus efforts on new legislation to designate a new site for geologic disposal of high-level nuclear waste,” said Tom Clements, Columbia-based Southeastern Nuclear Campaign Coordinator for the environmental watchdog group Friends of the Earth.
Congressional leadership in South Carolina up until recently has been unanimous in supporting Yucca as the solution, no matter the project’s current status, as commercial waste piles up at seven reactors in the state and Cold War-era weapons waste is stored at the Savannah River Site in Aiken.
However, Clyburn told The Greenville News that his focus has shifted to New Mexico, where he said local leaders and the community have expressed support for expanding an existing waste site to accept more nuclear refuse.
“I don’t foresee Congress passing any new money for Yucca Mountain,” Clyburn said. “What I would like to see happen is for us to change the focus from Nevada to New Mexico.”
Newly appointed Republican U.S. Sen. Tim Scott of Charleston said the licensing process should go forward “as long as it remains the law of the land” and that the only hurdle to reviving Yucca lies in Senate opposition.
“Last year, the House of Representatives voted with an overwhelming bipartisan majority to provide additional funds for that process, and now it’s up to the Senate to follow suit,” Scott said.
The question on how to spend the money isn’t as clear.
In response to questions by The News, a spokesman for Republican U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham referred to an earlier statement Graham made when the court’s decision was announced last month in which Graham called the ruling “positive news for South Carolina and our nation.”
Graham’s spokesman, Kevin Bishop, said Graham had no comment “at this time” on how the remaining funds should be spent.
A spokesman for Republican U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan, who represents the district where the Oconee Nuclear Station and SRS reside, declined to comment.
Following the court’s decision, Duncan said that he’s committed “to do everything in my power to ensure that Yucca Mountain moves forward and that our government is making energy decisions based on what’s best for the country, not based on politics.”
Documents’ release urged
During a U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing this week, Republicans took aim at the Obama administration’s move to shut down the project without congressional approval.
In particular, lawmakers pointed to Yucca Mountain evaluation reports prepared by scientists for the NRC before the project was shut down.
They said the reports were edited to remove mention of the scientists’ final conclusions about the project’s suitability.
Available funding would be enough to issue complete versions of the reports, within a matter of months, they said.
State Attorney General Alan Wilson, who sued the NRC on the state’s behalf and hailed the court’s ruling as a victory, told The News that it is too soon to comment on how the money should be spent.
However, Wilson said the release of the full “safety evaluation reports” would be a good starting point.
Lawyers are preparing the office’s submissions to the NRC, which are due Sept. 30, Wilson said.
“Let the sunlight in, because we believe that the most heavily researched and studied piece of real estate in the history of the planet has been adequately vetted after billions have been spent doing this,” Wilson said.
The NRC defends the redactions, arguing that conclusions reached weren’t official policy.
The final safety evaluation report originally was to be published in several volumes, NRC spokesman David McIntyre said.
One volume was published in 2010, but after then-NRC chairman Greg Jaczko ordered the review closed, the three remaining volumes were published as “technical evaluation reports, essentially containing the substance of the staff’s review without any regulatory conclusions,” McIntyre said.
The NRC staff “is currently evaluating what it would take to complete them as a full SER,” he said.
If the reports were released, Wilson said he believes that “any of those who waver on the issue would see that Yucca has been vetted as a reasonable place to put nuclear waste.”
Wilson said he didn’t want to speculate on how much releasing the reports would cost.
“The same people who argue about spending $11 million as throwing good money after bad are the same people who defend just throwing away $7 billion for political posturing,” he said.