Tuesday, Jan. 13, 2009 | 2 a.m.
- Editorial: Putting science first (12-17-2008)
Barack Obama pledged during his campaign to oppose the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump. Today, as his nominee for energy secretary, Steven Chu, goes to the Senate for his confirmation hearing, he is expected to begin elaborating on the future of the project.
Opponents of the dump, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, expect this is the beginning of the end for Yucca Mountain.
“Barack Obama will get rid of Yucca Mountain,” Reid said last month in an interview with the Sun.
Obama will “put his fingerprints on it fairly early,” Reid said. “I don’t think there’s too much we need to do legislatively.” Left unsaid by Reid was the reality that he might not have the votes to shut down the project outright if he tried to do so.
Rather, Reid believes the project can be severely crippled through budget cuts he and Obama will make in coming weeks.
Obama’s home state of Illinois is in dire need of a permanent storage site. It has more spent nuclear fuel stored temporarily than any other state. But Obama visited Nevada 20 times on the campaign trail and Nevada helped elect him to the White House.
Reid’s ability to curtail or kill Yucca will surely be a centerpiece of his own reelection campaign in 2010, which already uses the slogan that as majority leader, Reid can deliver for Nevada like no one else can.
As Chu appears for his confirmation hearing, lawmakers are preparing a massive spending plan that will likely contain a sizable cut to the Energy Department’s now $380 million annual budget for Yucca Mountain.
Reid has engineered 20 percent budget cuts over the past two years, and hinted he would do the same this year.
After that, Obama will put his own stamp on the project when he releases the 2010 federal budget in February — with a line item for Yucca Mountain.
Yucca Mountain’s outgoing project director in Washington, Edward Sproat, told the National Academy of Sciences last month that the repository’s projected 2020 opening is an “extreme stretch” given the dicey atmosphere in Washington.
“Politics and money — they’re the only two issues associated with making this happen,” said Sproat, a Bush appointee, who is stepping down at the end of this week.
Obama and his energy secretary-designee arrive in Washington at a time when the political players on the Hill have also changed.
Gone are Yucca Mountain’s longtime supporters — veteran lawmakers including Sen. Pete Domenici, the New Mexico Republican, and Rep. David Hobson, the veteran appropriator from Ohio, who made sure Yucca got its money.
In their place will be other pro-Yucca lawmakers, including Sen. Jim DeMint, the Republican Energy committee member from South Carolina, a state that is home to several nuclear power plants, and Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions, who is also on the Senate panel.
The nuclear energy industry also just had a change of leadership when retired Navy Admiral Skip Bowman stepped down as head of the Nuclear Energy Institute. But the institute, the industry’s main lobbying arm, is urging the new administration not to change course.
Steven Kraft, the institute’s used-fuel director, suggests that if the government does strangle the project, Washington will face a large and long-running legal battle with utility companies that have contracts with the federal government to have their spent nuclear fuel removed and stored elsewhere.
Already, the government has a liability of more than $7 billion after courts ruled that Washington reneged on its promise to take the waste off the companies’ hands in 1998 — the original opening date for Yucca Mountain.
“We don’t want the legal fights,” Kraft said. The Obama administration should allow the project to continue going through the licensing process at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to determine whether the repository works as government and industry scientists believe it will, he said. The process is expected to take four years.
“We’re on the verge of answering those questions,” he said. “Then you can have all the discussions you want about if we’ll ever use it.”
In Carson City on Monday, Bruce Breslow was settling into his new job at the state Agency for Nuclear Projects. Breslow, the former Sparks mayor, was appointed by the governor to replace Robert Loux, who headed the office fighting Yucca Mountain for 25 years. Loux resigned after improperly giving himself and staff members unapproved pay increases.
The state’s pro-Yucca forces saw Loux’s departure as an opportunity to tilt state policy to a more neutral — or even positive — stance on Yucca. They see the waste dump as a potential economic engine for the state’s poorer rural communities.
But Breslow seems destined to let them down.
“They seem to think there’s a big pot of money at the end of the rainbow, but there isn’t,” Breslow said by phone.
“The state policy for the past 25 years has been to fight (Yucca Mountain) because it’s not safe and it’s a bad plan,” Breslow said. “We may have a new director, but we don’t have a new policy.”