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December 3, 2021

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The Policy Racket

Harry Reid ally: Maybe it’s time to put Yucca Moutain in the rearview mirror

Harry Reid’s right-hand man in the Senate tried to make a push for nuclear reprocessing this morning that would seem to take the pressure off Yucca Mountain, but the government’s top nuclear energy officials didn’t seem to think too highly about its prospects.

Likening the bid to license Yucca to the Greek myth of Sisyphus -- that ancient king who was condemned to push a boulder up a hill only to watch it roll back down, and repeat the pattern for eternity -- Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois asked whether it isn’t time to move on from the idea that a cavernous facility in Nevada can be the national dumping ground for spent fuel.

“Are we not in a world that has accepted reprocessing? Should we not be looking at ourselves as an alternative to a $90 billion Yucca Mountain investment that might come online 10 years from now?” Durbin asked a panel that included both the chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Greg Jaczko, and the acting assistant Energy secretary for nuclear, Peter Lyons.

It’s notable that the question would come from Durbin, who being from nuclear-rich Illinois has been both a booster for the industry and an advocate for advancing Yucca Mountain as the country's a recipient site.

But in his questions this morning, he seems to have been all but defeated by the Yucca boondoggle and eager to move on to reprocessing as an alternative.

Only one problem with Durbin’s plan though. Cost.

“A repository -- I’m not saying Yucca Mountain -- but a repository probably has a lower cost” than reprocessing, Lyons said. “But there may be other reasons that would drive one toward some kind of reprocessing.”

There’s also the question of where this reprocessing would be done. On site? That’s one option that was raised by Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, who also pressed Jaczko and Lyons to explain why spent fuel rods couldn’t be more quickly transferred to the dry-cast storage that was envisioned for a long-term repository like Yucca Mountain, at the nuclear plants themselves. (They probably could, but the pools are necessary to cool down the sizzling spent fuel rods their first few weeks out of the reactor at the very least.)

But Yucca has also been put forward as a potential reprocessing facility, even by people close to home, such as Rep. Joe Heck. But it doesn’t seem like there’s much incentive to accelerate plans -- which at this stage, are only speculative -- in that direction either. It still just costs too much.

“I have never seen a study that claimed that it was less expensive to use reprocessing,” Lyons said. “Nor am I aware of any utility in this country that is pushing to move toward reprocessing.”

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