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"Why loan guarantees?" Vancko asked rhetorically. "Because six top investment firms told the Department of Energy in 2007 that they were unwilling to finance new reactors in light of the industry’s horrible financial track record. Utilities don’t want to take that risk, either. But both would consider new reactors if taxpayers assumed the risk — in the form of federal loan guarantees."
The Union of Concerned Scientists has estimated that subsidies for new nuclear plants might equal anywhere from three-quarters to twice the value of the power produced. "For a single 1,600-megawatt (MW) reactor," it says, "the loan guarantee alone would generate subsidies of $495 million per year, or roughly $15 billion over the 30-year life of the guarantee."
Don't hold your breath. Vancko explains that although "there was a lot of hype about a nuclear renaissance," cost estimates have gone through the roof, the recession has driven demand estimates through the floor, the collapse of climate and energy legislation has done away the vehicle through which subsidies could have been channeled to the industry, and the Fukushima disaster has reminded people all around the world that yes, something can go wrong. All in all, the past decade has "destroyed the economics of this technology," she says.
Still, the Obama administration has advocated building more plants while simultaneously trying to undercut the nation's only project for storing the waste that those plants would produce. Is that inconsistent? The administration evidently believes that having waited this long for a waste depository, there's no harm in waiting a little longer. The NRC chairman has said that it's safe to store waste in pools at reactor sites for 100 years.
It had better be. The political process has been high-centered indefinitely. Meanwhile, Washington (joined by South Carolina, which has decades of waste from plutonium production at Savannah River to worry about) soldiers on in the courts.
Early last year, the administration announced that the Department of Energy would withdraw the application, and the president named a Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future to work out Plan B. The DOE subsequently moved to withdraw the application with prejudice, which would mean it couldn't be re-opened.
The motion to withdraw it went first to the NRC's Atomic Safety and Licensing Board, before which the state of Washington testified that the administration couldn't legally just decide to bag the Yucca project. The state argued that the "plain and unambiguous language of the NWPA requires that once a repository site has been 'approved,' both DOE and the NRC must follow through with the construction authorization application process until a decision on the merits is reached. . . . Congress has commanded that upon approval of a repository site, DOE 'shall submit to the [NRC] an application for a construction authorization for a repository at such site,' and that the NRC 'shall consider an application for a construction authorization for all or part of a repository' and 'shall issue a final decision approving or disapproving the issuance of a construction authorization.'”
Last June, the board denied the administration's motion. It observed that the Nuclear Waste Policy Act "does not give the secretary [of energy] the discretion to substitute his policy for the one established by Congress."
But, of course, the DOE appealed the ruling to the NRC, which took its time about issuing a decision. Last Friday (Sept. 9), the NRC finally acted. Kind of.
Washington state didn't just sit on its hands, and wait for a decision. It asked the D.C. Circuit Court to declare that the NRC couldn't consider and the DOE couldn't pursue its decision to scrap Yucca, because that decision would violate the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (the executive branch couldn't just unilaterally abandon a process mandated by Congress), the National Environmental Policy Act (the executive branch couldn't abandon it without an environmental impact statement), and the Administrative Procedure Act (the executive branch couldn't abandon it without creating a record). This July, the court ruled that since the NRC hadn't yet decided on either the merits of the DOE's application or the DOE’s motion to withdraw it, the case wasn't ripe for review.
After that ruling, the state asked the court for a writ of mandamus, ordering the NRC to decide. It argued that Congress had specified a process, that process had chosen Yucca, and the administration couldn't just decide, without articulating a reason, to bag the permitting process. "You don't completely cut the legs out from under the existing effort," Fitz said, "unless you've reached a determination on the merits."
The NRC still hasn't done that. In its decision last week, it deadlocked 2-2 but ordered the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board to wrap things up at Yucca Mountain by the end of the fiscal year. Exactly what this all means isn't clear. Fitz has written to the NRC's counsel asking for clarification. In the meantime, going by the NRC's own rules, "my interpretation is that the lower order . . . is left intact." Fitz notes that according to the press, at least one NRC commissioner agrees.
Does Fitz himself agree that the NRC's decision, whatever it means, makes the state's request for mandamus moot? Not at all. "I would not concede that," he says. "We will still argue that they still need to be considering DOE's application." This means following all the statutory steps. Merely "saying that you're not going to do it at all is in clear contradiction to the statutory mandate."
But he concedes that the president's budget includes no money for going forward with Yucca — although the continuing resolution Congress passed in April may contain a bit. "I think it's in our interest to try to move fairly expeditiously," he says, at least "in part because of the speed with which the NRC is closing out" the process. Obviously, he says, "the more steps you take to distance yourself from what the statute tells you to do, the harder it is to get back to that point."
Politically, Vancko says, "Yucca is off the table. Nothing else is on the table." In other words, the administration isn't even dithering. It's trying to fulfill a campaign promise and please the constituents of Senate Majority leader Harry Reid. "Administratively, the process has been dismantled," Fitz says. It would take years to re-start it — if anyone wanted it re-started. The Blue Ribbon Commission hasn't proposed an alternative. Did anyone expect it to? "That's why we have a blue ribbon commission," Vancko says. "When you don't want to do anything, you appoint a commission."
This commission has proposed an aspiration and an approach. Finding somebody willing to take Son of Yucca "means encouraging communities to volunteer to be considered to host a new nuclear waste management facility while also allowing for the [new] waste management organization to approach communities that it believes can meet the siting requirements," the commission said. Step right up, folks.
The commission has acknowledged that this approach would take a lot of time. "The approach we recommend . . . recognizes that successful siting decisions are most likely to result from a complex and perhaps extended set of negotiations between the implementing organization and potentially affected state, tribal, and local governments, and other entities," the commission explained. "All siting processes take time; however, an adaptive, staged approach may seem particularly slow and open-ended. This will be frustrating to stakeholders and to members of the public who are understandably anxious to know when they can expect to see results. The Commission shares this frustration — greater certainty and a quicker resolution would have been our preference also. Experience, however, leads us to conclude that there is no short-cut."
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