Inflation Hits Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Dump

Thursday, Jan 7, 2010  |  Updated 6:18 PM EDT
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Inflation Hits Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Dump

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WASHINGTON, DC, August 5, 2008 (ENS) - It will cost 38 percent more to build, operate and decommission the nation's first nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada than the federal government estimated seven years ago, the U.S. Department of Energy said today in an updated life cycle cost estimate.

The highly radioactive waste is left over from nuclear power generation and national defense programs.

An increase in the amount of waste to be shipped and stored at the repository and more than $16 billion for inflation have added to the cost, says the DOE official in charge of Yucca Mountain.

"This increased cost estimate is reasonable given inflation and the expected increase in the amount of spent nuclear fuel from existing reactors with license renewals," said Ward Sproat, director of the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, which has jurisdiction over the repository.

The 2007 total system life cycle cost estimate includes the cost to research, construct and operate Yucca Mountain during a period of 150 years, from the beginning of the program in 1983 through closure and decommissioning in 2133.

The new cost estimate of $79.3 billion, when updated to 2007 dollars, comes to $96.2 billion, a 38 percent increase from the last published estimate in 2001 of $57.5 billion.

The total cost of building and operating the repository is divided between utility ratepayers and taxpayers, with ratepayers estimated to pay a little more than 80 percent, or $77.3 billion.

The DOE is not proposing a change in the fee paid by nuclear utilities for the disposal of commercial spent nuclear fuel at this time.

Approximately $13.5 billion has been spent on the Yucca Mountain repository from 1983 to the present.

"We have marked significant project milestones this year and look forward to that progress continuing and nuclear waste currently sitting at 121 temporary locations around the country being safely stored at Yucca Mountain," said Sproat.

In 2002, Yucca Mountain was approved by the Congress and President George W. Bush as the site for the nation's first permanent spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste geologic repository.

Yucca Mountain is located 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada on the Nevada Nuclear Test Site in Nye County. The waste is now held at sites in 39 states and the government plans to ship it in mostly by rail, with some truck shipments. DOE plans to build a railroad through Nevada to Yucca Mountain to transport the waste.

The new cost estimate reflects a 30 percent increase in the amount of commercial spent nuclear fuel to be disposed of in the repository, from a 2000 estimate of 83,800 metric tons heavy metal to a 2007 estimate of 109,300 metric tons heavy metal.

This increased amount would extend the transportation period by 16 years and the emplacement period by 25 years.

The increased amount of spent nuclear fuel is a result of existing and anticipated license renewals at operating nuclear power plants throughout the United States, said Sproat.

Other factors contributing to the higher cost estimate include increases in raw material costs and a refinement of the repository design.

The DOE on June 3 filed an application for construction authorization for Yucca Mountain with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The State of Nevada, through the Attorney General's office, has filed a petition to reject the application because it is "unauthorized and substantially incomplete."

The NRC now has until September 1, 2008 to determine whether to accept the Energy Department's application for further review.

Opponents of Yucca Mountain, including the entire Nevada congressional delegation, doubt the safety of transporting the high-level nuclear waste to Nevada through counties that are home to more than 106 million people.

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada says the DOE's plan is so flawed that Yucca Mountain will never be built. He says the waste should be stored in casks where it is now located.

Reid and fellow Nevada Senator John Ensign, a Republican, both feature a petition to stop Yucca Mountain on their websites. Ensign says, "Yucca Mountain is dead, and it is time to move forward in a new direction with on-site waste storage."

On Reid's website he points out that 45 states could host nuclear waste routes, "Yet there will be absolutely no public process to review these routes - not by the NRC [Nuclear Regulatory Commission], not by the DOE, and not even by the U.S. Department of Transportation. This is a massive and dangerous shipping campaign, but the NRC refuses to scrutinize it when considering DOE's application to build the dump."

Reid says, "DOE does not even have complete plans to transport nuclear waste or to build the dump at Yucca Mountain, which is in an earthquake-prone environment."

"Even worse, the Environmental Protection Agency has not decided what levels of radiation can be "safely leaked" from the dump. EPA has proposed a dangerously lenient radiation standard that completely disregards the health and safety of future generations. But, with less than half the designs for the dump complete, it is preposterous to think that NRC is in a position to decide that a nuclear waste dump could meet EPA's terrible proposed radiation standard," says Reid.

Nevada Governor Jim Gibbons, a former Nevada congressman, said in June, "There are too many problems with this project to list, whether it's the potential for groundwater contamination, the fed's inability to safely transport high-level nuclear waste or the federal government's profound encroachment on state's rights. We must continue the fight against this ill-conceived project."

The City of Las Vegas has adopted a formal resolution opposing the Yucca Mountain Project, and Mayor Oscar Goodman told a DOE public hearing in 2003 that he personally would lie down in the roadway to stop trucks carrying the waste.

But Sproat says the cost of dealing with the nation's highly radioactive waste will only increase the longer Yucca Mountain is delayed.

"The Department estimates that U.S. taxpayers' potential liability to contract holders who have paid into the Nuclear Waste Fund will increase from approximately $7.0 billion to approximately $11 billion if the opening of the repository is delayed from 2017 to 2020," Sproat told U.S. House of Representatives in April.

"The calculation of potential costs to taxpayers is a complex matter that depends on a number of variables that change year to year, however, on average the liability will increase $500 million annually," he said.

The Nuclear Waste Fund was set up by Congress to fund the project and the utilities that hold nuclear power plant licenses have paid billions of dollars into the fund to cover their share of the disposal of commercial spent nuclear fuel.

Sproat says these fees may be adjusted if it is not "adequate" or "more than adequate" to meet projected obligations.

Although a change in fee is not proposed at this time, these assessments cannot be maintained unless there is consistent and sufficient annual funding for the construction and operation of the repository.

The Bush administration has twice submitted legislation to Congress to ensure such funding, but with each federal budget the amount allotted to Yucca Mountain shrinks while costs inflate.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2008. All rights reserved.

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