Yucca Mountain Death Watch


Is Yucca Mountain about to implode? In this first month after the inauguration of President and Yucca Mountain-opponent Barack Obama, it's been a little hard to tell. Bush-appointed radioactive waste-czar Ward Sproat left the Energy Department on cue, but the man who rose from the ranks to temp in his spot, Christopher Kouts, spent 23 years on the project as an engineer. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, currently reviewing the license application Sproat hurried along, has approved its proposed radiation safety standards. And Obama's new energy secretary, Steven Chu, apparently implied in a New York Times interview that politicians should step aside and let the commission do its work -- in other words, the license review process should carry on for the sake of objective science.

That remark, paraphrased by the reporters, prompted calls from Nevada Rep. Shelley Berkley and Senator Harry Reid demanding clarification. And on Wednesday, reports the Las Vegas Review-Journal's man on the scene, Steve Tetreault, Chu sort of clarified -- in a closed-door session with public officials at the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioner's winter meeting. Reports Tetreault:

“The impression I got is (Chu) wants to learn from the (repository) license review,” said one person in the meeting. The proceedings would continue in order for the government to work through issues associated with licensing a first-of-its-kind nuclear waste site, according to this view.

For all the worry such remarks might cause the project's presumed opponents, much more angst can be detected among Yucca Mountain staff and supporters -- which is perhaps the clearest evidence that nuclear waste is not destined for a dump in Nevada. 

As the Review-Journal also reports, the project’s main contractor, USA Repository Service, will soon eliminate 500 of its 600 jobs. Research facilities are moving staff off the project as well, expecting federal funds will soon dry up. And even the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), always bullish on all things nuclear – potential volcanic eruptions be damned – has come forward to suggest that maybe, just maybe, the nuclear industry needs another plan. NEI policy development director Paul Genoa wants the Obama administration to “put forward a Plan B before they take away Plan A,” and urges the administration to assemble an expert commission to come up with one.

That's probably wise lobbyist behavior -- without a waste solution utilities will likely have to abandon new reactor plans on the docket – especially in these credit-crunched times, when despite Utah Senator Bill Bennett's best efforts, there'll be no $50 billion for new nuke loans in the stimulus package.

Meanwhile, some of the Yucca Mountain staff intends not to go quietly into this Yucca-free nuclear waste future. An energy department employee, Candice Trummell, has started up a Web site arguing the merits of the dump location, Yucca Matters. And, in the end, it may – matter, that is. But perhaps only as an object lesson in what happens when politics trumps science.

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