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March 21, 2023

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President’s course leaves question open: Is it dead?

Despite his promise, licensing process goes on

Yucca Mountain

The U.S. Energy Department plans to store spent nuclear fuel at Yucca Mountain, an extinct volcano about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas. Launch slideshow »

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Faced with a Nevada campaign promise to stop Yucca Mountain but the scientific and legal complexity of abruptly ending the massive project, President Barack Obama made a decision that should surprise no one following his presidency.

He chose a pragmatic middle way.

Obama’s 2010 budget lays out his intent to terminate the proposed nuclear waste repository northwest of Las Vegas, providing just enough money for the Energy Department to continue pursuing the project as alternatives are sought.

The result has left many to declare the dump is dead, and others to wonder whether it might be very much alive.

As Yucca Mountain enters the Obama era, the questions emerge: Is the Yucca Mountain project really gone? If so, what is the purpose of spending $196.8 million this year to pursue a license for a waste dump that will never be built?

“Yucca is like a zombie movie,” said Bruce Breslow, executive director of the Nevada Nuclear Projects Agency, which is fighting the waste dump.

“You know it’s dead, but it keeps limping toward you and you’re constantly coming up with new ways to kill it.”

Early on, Obama’s Nobel-winning Energy Secretary, Steven Chu, let it be known that he found value in pursuing the department’s application before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to license Yucca Mountain.

Chu’s comments sounded like slip-ups at first — the politically naive remarks of the professor-turned-administrator.

The Bush administration filed the application, but Obama’s campaign said he would withdraw it if elected, effectively ending the project in a swift action.

Chu’s remarks seemed to put him at odds with Obama’s stated opposition to the dump.

The application is a nearly 9,000-page document that explains what the Energy Department believes will happen as nuclear waste is stored in the Nevada desert.

Yucca Mountain is in a class by itself. No other federal project is required to meet the regulations it faces, including an untried plan to protect residents from exposure to potentially cancer-causing nuclear material for the next 1 million years.

After more than $9 billion and 25 years spent studying the site, many are curious about whether the work holds up.

The secretary believes that the regulatory exercise could produce information that might prove useful in seeking alternatives to the waste repository site.

“There are some things, as I’ve said before, that we can learn,” Chu said last week.

Chu is, above all, a scientist. The four-year, judicial-style hearing, with parties under oath, provides an unmatched laboratory to test decades of work. No postgame report on Yucca Mountain would compare.

Yet entering this venue creates a ticking time bomb for some Yucca opponents. Just as easily as Obama killed the project, they envision a new president ramping it up with the stroke of another pen.

The administration is in the process of assembling a panel to consider alternatives to Yucca Mountain. Chu would like to test the models that have been developed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Energy Department, saying they could help in future storage assessments.

“There is one point that I became convinced is very valuable,” Chu said. “Just testing these things, for whatever site, I think that’s important.”

Chu’s reasoning has been embraced by some, dismissed by others.

Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley, a longtime anti-Yucca lawmaker, said seeing the process to completion will prove once and for all that Yucca is not safe.

“Let’s do this thing,” Berkley said. “I’m confident the study is going to demonstrate it’s not feasible. Let’s go forward. Let’s have a full and fair hearing and put this thing to bed once and for all.”

Others suggest hopefully that pursuing the review keeps the promise of Yucca Mountain alive.

“It would be silly in my opinion not to decide whether it’s a good site or not,” said Andrew Kadak, a professor of nuclear engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

One alternative to Yucca Mountain is to seek communities to volunteer as temporary host sites. Persuading them to do so would be easier if a permanent repository remained in sight, Kadak said. “The decision to use it can be made later.”

But Nils Diaz, who served a decade on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, including as its chairman from 2003 to 2006, believes “there is little value” in having the administration continue the review “unless it leads to a completed process.”

“The reality is, the scientific value has already been done in developing the models and studying the mountain for so many years,” said Diaz, who is now on Florida’s Energy and Climate Commission.

If the endgame is determined, Diaz said, “we should not be spending more ratepayers’ money on continuing it.”

The cost of the administration’s exercise has not gone unnoticed. Those utility customers who rely on nuclear power have paid more than $22 billion to a special tax fund to develop Yucca Mountain. Lawmakers in Washington have introduced legislation to rebate that money as Obama’s plans for Yucca became known.

Tyson Slocum, director of the energy program at the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, which favors storing nuclear waste where it now sits at utility plants nationwide, would prefer to see funds spent on Plan B.

“I don’t see what the value is,” Slocum said. “The administration is kind of clouding the picture a little bit. We need to make a decision, stick with it and move on.”

Yet the White House may be driven as much by the threat of lawsuits as the promise of science.

The federal government promised the nation’s utility companies it would take the waste off their hands in 1998. When Yucca failed to open on time, several companies sued, exposing the federal government to more than $7 billion in liability.

Allowing the licensing to proceed buys time to quell political discontent and muster support for alternatives.

Marvin Fertel, president of the Nuclear Energy Institute, the main industry lobby, supports the administration’s pursuit of the license, but suggests “they are probably looking more at a legal implication than a science-gaining implication.”

Initial proceedings for the Yucca license have begun before administrative judges in Las Vegas. The process, by law, can take up to four years.

Chu could not say how long he would like to engage in the exercise. Asked whether he envisions a day when the administration will directly withdraw the application, the secretary could not say.

“Let’s wait for those things,” Chu said. “We’re in the process of termination.”

Five presidents have shaped waste policy at Yucca, and Obama could be the last.

Obama visited Nevada 20 times during the campaign, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is confident the president who won Nevada in the election will halt plans to store nuclear waste in the desert.

Yet the political power of Obama in the White House and Reid as majority leader is not inexorable. Some day, different leaders will hold those positions.

Will Yucca Mountain be long gone by then or will its application remain intact, ready for a revival?

“The dump is dead,” Reid’s spokesman said.

“It’s over,” Republican Sen. John Ensign said.

“On optimistic days you would get an enthusiastic yes from me,” Berkley said. “Until there is an alternative to nuclear waste disposal, Yucca Mountain will always be in the background.”

“It’s moribund,” Diaz said. “Sometimes to be merciful, you have to let something completely stop, and I don’t think they’re doing that.”

“Dead-dead? Stake through the heart dead?” said Allison Macfarlane, an associate professor at George Mason University who coedited an MIT collection on Yucca Mountain. To do that, she said, “You’d have to write new legislation. And you’d have to write, ‘The one place this cannot go is Yucca Mountain.’ ”

Bob Loux, the former state agency director who fought the dump for 25 years, sees the endgame.

He doubts the Obama funding will be adequate for the review and expects the process will eventually burn out.

History has shown this to happen. Think of the Super Collider abandoned in rural Texas.

“Once these things get defunded, they never come back,” Loux said. “I just don’t see this thing like a big-bang theory and it’s done. It just kind of slowly fades away.”

Lisa Mascaro can be reached at

(202) 662-7436 or at lisa.mascaro

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