The U.S. Energy Dept. is headed back to the drawing board for a national nuclear-waste depository. President Barack Obama, making good on a campaign pledge, is seeking an alternate dump site to Nevada’s Yucca Mountain, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas. “I have consistently said that I am opposed to Yucca Mountain,” Obama told a Las Vegas crowd last January. “That will not change.”

The budget at Yucca was cut $100 million for the rest of 2009.
Photo: The U.S. DOE
The budget at Yucca was cut $100 million for the rest of 2009.

The U.S. Energy Dept. has spent over $10 billion since 1983 performing geological tests and studies at Yucca Mountain in anticipation of storing 77,000 tons of radioactive waste there. Obama, however, last month revealed in his 2010 budget request to Congress that the administration will “devise a new strategy toward nuclear-waste disposal” and scale back operations at Yucca Mountain “to those costs necessary to answer inquiries from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.”

That position was reiterated by Energy Secretary Steven Chu, who told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on March 5 that Yucca Mountain “is not an option.” Chu told the panel that the administration plans to assemble a blue-ribbon panel this year to explore alternative ways to dispose of and store nuclear waste.

“We are in the process of scaling back dramatically,” says Yucca Mountain project spokesperson Allen Benson. “We are planning for a $288-million budget, which is a $100-million reduction for the remainder of fiscal year 2009.”

Bechtel SAIC Corp. LLC ends its run as project manager on March 31. The joint venture of San Francisco-based Bechtel and SAIC, San Diego, which has been on site since 2001, last year lost its bid to remain as site manager. In October, the Energy Dept. awarded a five-year, $2.5-billion performance-based, cost-plus contract to USA Repository Services, a joint venture led by San Francisco-based URS Corp., with Shaw Environmental and Infrastructure Inc., Baton Rouge, and France’s Areva SA. The job carries a potential five-year extension through March 31, 2019.

“There are a whole lot of people that are not going to be picked up by the new contractor,” says Jason Bohne, a Bechtel-SAIC spokesman. “You are looking at several hundred layoffs by month’s end. And we have not even gotten to 2010.”

USA-RS assumes site control on April 1. Its duties include completing a detailed repository design, operating existing facilities at the Yucca Mountain site and supporting construction management if the project moves forward.

“The transition has been going very good,” Bohne says. “We had 105 transition packages that were signed by DOE. It gives them details of processes, how to find stuff, so they can go do the work.”

The Energy Dept., after two decades of heated debate, in June filed a formal application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to build a repository holding radioactive waste from 121 temporary sites in 39 states. Spent utility fuel and high-level defense waste would be placed in specially engineered containers housed inside a network of tunnels built deep within Yucca Mountain. The project price tag is $90 billion.


But Nevada’s two-decade-long population boom and growing wealth have posed significant challenges to the project, which stretches back to 1978. Even if NRC approves the license, the project still faces staunch opposition from Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). “President Obama recognizes that the proposed dump threatens the health and safety of Nevadans and millions of Americans,” says Reid. “His commitment to stop this terrible project could not be more clear.”

Nuclear industry sources say it will store spent fuel the way it has for the past several years, but the government has an obligation to find a long-term storage solution. “It is imperative that the federal government move forward with finding a long-term solution for spent fuel,” says Marshall Murphy, spokesman for Excelon in Chicago. “This decrease in budget does not change what Excelon is presently doing with spent fuel at all its sites, and [the firm] will continue to safely store spent nuclear fuel either in our spent-fuel pools or using the dry-cask technology.”

South Carolina Electric and Gas spokesman Robert Yaniti says the potential loss of Yucca Mountain will not deter future nuclear projects. The utility plans to continue with its application for two 1,100 MW Westinghouse AP 1000 reactors at its V.C. Summer plant in Jenkinsville, S.C. “Even if Yucca Mountain never happens, it will not slow us down as far as building two new units,” he says.