The Senate is expected to vote on the final passage of the FY 2010 Energy and Water Development Appropriations Bill later this week. When President Obama signs this legislation, the plan to dispose of civilian nuclear waste will shift to a new, and as yet, undefined track.
The initial House and Senate versions of this legislation agreed with the Administration’s request to provide $98.4 million for nuclear waste disposal, as did the final bill. Funding will drop by $47.0 million from last year’s budget of $145.4 million.
The disposal of civilian nuclear waste, now estimated at 60,000 metric tons, has long been a contentious issue. Twenty-two years ago Congress selected Yucca Mountain, Nevada as the site of the nation’s sole underground nuclear waste repository. The State of Nevada and its congressional delegation opposed this repository in the courts and on Capitol Hill. Last year, the Department of Energy submitted an 8,600 page construction application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, starting a review expected to take at least three years. Said then Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman, “Today’s application begins a new phase for the Yucca Mountain Project,” which up until then had cost an estimated $10 billion and that had extended over twenty years. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and the rest of the Nevada delegation called the application “a political decision” and urged the NRC to “reject the Department’s approach.” In September the NRC announced that it would start the review process, prompting Reid to declare “Yucca Mountain is not only a dangerous proposition for the people of Nevada, it's a risky plan for every community in the country that would have the waste transported through their cities and towns, which is why I will continue my work to kill the proposed dump once and for all."
In May, the Administration sent its FY 2010 budget request to Congress. An FY 2010 Department of Energy document described the Administration’s position:
“All funding for development of the Yucca Mountain facility has been eliminated, such as further land acquisition, transportation access, and additional engineering. The budget request includes the minimal funding needed to explore alternatives for nuclear waste disposal through OCRWM [Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management] and to continue participation in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) license application (LA) process, consistent with the provisions of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. The Administration intends to convene a ‘blue-ribbon’ panel of experts to evaluate alternative approaches for meeting the federal responsibility to manage and ultimately dispose of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste from both commercial and defense activities. The panel will provide the opportunity for a meaningful dialogue on how best to address this challenging issue and will provide recommendations that will form the basis for working with Congress to revise the statutory framework for managing and disposing of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste.”
The Administration’s approach to waste disposal was outlined at a Senate hearing by Energy Secretary Steven Chu. When asked about Yucca Mountain Chu replied “I think we can do a better job,” later adding “I support reprocessing research.” He later said, when talking about reprocessing and its proliferation risks that “we have a couple of decades to figure that one out.” He later told senators that future waste disposition could employ short term storage, reprocessing, and permanent storage, saying “one site will not work” and predicting that a number of geographically dispersed short and long term storage sites might be utilized.
Yucca Mountain was one of the topics discussed at a June hearing before House appropriators. Secretary Chu said “I think Yucca Mountain as a long-term repository is definitely off the table,” and replied “yes” when asked “is Yucca Mountain as a permanent geological repository dead.”
The House and Senate Appropriations Committees concurred with the Administration’s decision regarding Yucca Mountain. The Senate Appropriations Committee report accompanying its FY 2010 bill stated:
“The Committee recommends $98,400,000, the same as the request. The Nuclear Waste Fund has a current balance of $22,000,000,000 and generates annual interest of just over $1,000,000,000 that is added to the corpus. The Committee believes that interest accrued, being more than five times the President's fiscal year 2010 budget proposal of $196,800,000, is more than adequate to cover planned activities proposed in this budget request and is not aware of any specific strategy to execute the statutory obligations to manage both defense and nondefense material consistent with the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. Given the Administration's decision to terminate the Yucca Mountain repository program while developing disposal alternatives, the Committee expects the Secretary of Energy to suspend collection of payments to the Nuclear Waste Fund. “
The House Appropriations Committee issued its own report a few days later, and wrote a considerably longer recommendation about Yucca Mountain:
“The Department of Energy requested a total of $98,400,000 for Nuclear Waste Disposal. The requested funds terminate the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository. The Administration requested funds to continue to work supporting the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's licensing of the site with the purpose of informing the licensing process for the Yucca successor. A Blue Ribbon Commission will be named to evaluate repository alternatives.
“For Nuclear Waste Disposal in fiscal year 2010, the Committee recommends $98,400,000, the same as the budget request. Of this amount, $5,000,000 is made available to support the Blue Ribbon Commission as requested by the Administration. The Committee supports this effort and provides full funding based on information received from the Department. However, the elimination of particular alternatives [e.g., Yucca Mountain] currently being proposed by the Administration does raise concerns. Since the Department's overall strategy for the disposition and long-term storage of nuclear material hinges upon the conclusions of this Commission, the analysis must be done on scientific merit using well-established scientific processes. There may be disagreement on whether Yucca Mountain is a suitable alternative, but the public investment made to date and the integrity of the scientific process warrant considering all alternatives. Therefore, the Committee makes the $5,000,000 available for the Blue Ribbon Commission only for an analysis of alternatives that includes all options for nuclear waste disposal based on scientific merit, as previously discussed in the Management of Nuclear Spent Fuel and Radioactive Waste section of this report. Additionally, the Committee directs that the proposed Blue Ribbon Commission shall include an appropriate level of representation of decommissioned reactor sites to ensure their interests are considered in the formulation of a national nuclear waste policy.
“The Committee also fully funds the request of $98,400,000 for Defense Nuclear Waste Disposal for a total of $191,800,000 to support the licensing activities on the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in fiscal year 2010 excluding the amount provided for the Blue Ribbon Commission. Not less than $70,000,000 of these funds shall be for the management contractor to retain the sufficient legal, scientific and technical expertise necessary to maintain and update the Yucca Mountain license application and its supporting documentation as may be required by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Further, the Committee recommends the statutory language that funds local units of government at levels proportional to the total funding provided at the fiscal year 2009 enacted level.”
House and Senate appropriators met to resolve differences between their two versions of the Energy and Water Development Appropriations Bill. Both chambers agreed on the funding level of $98.4 million, and resolved differences in the Yucca Mountain language by overriding their earlier recommendations. The final report language states:
“The conference agreement provides $98,400,000 for nuclear waste disposal, the same as proposed by the House and the Senate. The conferees provide $5,000,000 for the Secretary of Energy to establish the Blue Ribbon Commission. All guidance provided by the House and Senate reports is superseded by the conference agreement. The conference agreement also includes funds for technical and construction site management, business support, and other activities to carry out the Administration's fiscal year 2010 plan.”
The FY 2010 appropriations bill provides funding for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to continue its review of the application for the Yucca Mountain repository. The commission has more than 100 scientists involved in this process, and continuing the review will allow the team to develop its expertise to conduct future reviews. One of the next steps will be the designation of the members of the Blue Ribbon Commission. In May, Secretary Chu told Senate appropriators that a list of names was circulating in the White House.