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March 25, 2019

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State’s chief Yucca critic: It’s ‘almost a religious controversy now’

Yucca Mountain

John Locher/Associated Press file

Participants in a 2015 congressional tour of Yucca Mountain enter the project’s south portal. The site is near the Nevada town of Mercury, about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

Robert J. Halstead

Robert J. Halstead

The once-mothballed proposal for a Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository looks to be heading for a revival and will be a part of discussions at this week’s Radwaste Summit in Las Vegas.

Robert J. Halstead, executive director of the governor’s Agency for Nuclear Projects, is set to appear on the “Yucca Mountain Restart” panel on Wednesday at the summit, which is expected to draw more than 350 commercial and federal radioactive waste officials from Sept. 5-7.

The 11th annual summit is taking place shortly after the Nuclear Regulatory Commission decided in early August to spend up to $110,000 gathering information for its review of the Department of Energy’s stalled Yucca Mountain application. President Donald Trump’s blueprint budget released earlier this year asked for $120 million for Yucca Mountain.

The singular focus on the Nye County site came about in the ’80s with an amendment to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. Nevada has always been opposed to Yucca Mountain serving as the nation’s sole site for nuclear waste storage, Halstead said.

Nye County Commission Chair Dan Schinhofen will also speak on the panel. Officials in the county have said they want the licensing proceeding to move forward so that the science behind the project can be heard.

Halstead spoke with the Las Vegas Sun about the panel and the uncertain future of Yucca Mountain.

What’s the goal of the “Yucca Mountain Restart” panel?

I’d like people to take away an understanding that Nevada’s opposition to Yucca Mountain is very deep and strong, aside from folks in Nye County (and some others). In Gov. (Brian) Sandoval’s State of the State in January, he promised relentless opposition and maximum resources.

I hope to explain the ways in which the state’s opposition is based on concerns about safety and protection of the environment. Nevada’s opposition is based on a detailed understanding of the deficiencies in the site of Yucca Mountain. It should never have been chosen as a repository site, if we were working on earth science rather than political science.

The Department of Energy’s … repository design does not overcome the deficiencies at the repository site. (Nevada’s) opposition is based on a real understanding of the earth science and a real understanding of the engineering and operating issues that are involved with DOE’s proposal. A lot of people have a mushy idea in their head that, “Oh, everything that’s wrong with Yucca Mountain could be fixed, and why won’t the state just sit down and talk about fixing it.” That isn’t the case.

Geologic disposal means that the site is supposed to work without engineered barriers. The geology and the hydrology are supposed to isolate the waste. That is absolutely not the case at Yucca Mountain. Even DOE is forced to admit that without engineered barriers the site will fail in less than 1,000 years, let alone the million-year standard that it has to meet.

I want to have people leave that presentation knowing that not only is the state opposed, but the state is opposed for technical reasons. We’re going to win on those issues in the licensing proceeding, if in fact Congress decides to restart all of this.

What’s next for Yucca Mountain?

No one knows at this point. We won’t know (in early September) what’s going to happen with the congressional appropriations process. Presumably both agencies under the Trump administration’s March directive to restart the program are doing that. But they really can’t do very much unless they get massive new funding — $120 million requested for DOE, $30 million requested for NRC for the federal fiscal year that begins on Oct. 1.

The state is preparing for a worst-case scenario on the policy front … that DOE restarts their Yucca program, which has been dormant really since 2011. (Energy Secretary) Rick Perry has said the DOE intends to go forward with the Yucca licensing proceeding depending on whether Congress gives them the money. The state is preparing for a full resumption of the licensing proceeding, even though we think that’s a terrible mistake in terms of what’s good for Nevada … (and) the country.

Will Yucca Mountain supporters outnumber opponents at the RadWaste summit?

It’s rare that you get this many pro-nuclear waste, pro-Yucca Mountain people in one place at one time. It’s always interesting to go and talk to people … This conference is going to be filled with people who think Yucca Mountain is a good idea. I don’t know that I’m going to change anybody’s mind, because this is almost a religious controversy now.

The overwhelming majority of people at this conference are people who think Yucca Mountain going forward is a good idea.

What are the key topics on the RadWaste Summit agenda?

The three hot topics are going to be Yucca Mountain, what to do about spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste until Yucca Mountain is ready — or if Yucca Mountain isn’t ready ever — and then ... cleanup at DOE weapons facilities.

I try to spend a lot of time at the beginning of my presentations these days explaining to people, “Guys, there’s no repository there.” The tunnel cannot be used for storage or disposal. Even if the existing tunnel were to be worked into the design of a repository — it’s 5 miles long — you need a minimum of 40 miles of tunnels and drifts (another type of tunnel) and probably closer to 90 miles.

A repository at Yucca Mountain is at least $82 billion (on top of the $15 billion already spent) and 20 or 25 years away.

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