Behind Nevada's victory over Washington at nuclear tug-of-war

The Obama administration and Senate Majority Leader have effectively killed Yucca Mountain, leaving Hanford holding the (leaking) nuclear waste.

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The crest of Yucca Mountain

The Obama administration and Senate Majority Leader have effectively killed Yucca Mountain, leaving Hanford holding the (leaking) nuclear waste.

It seems more and more likely that Hanford will remain the nation's largest nuclear waste dump until the plutonium waste produced during World War Two and the Cold War loses all its radioactivity or hell freezes over, whichever comes first. The plutonium will take about 240,000 years. (It will lose half its radioactivity in a mere 24,000.) Hell is somewhat less certain. Take your choice.

Hanford was, of course, the site of the world's first plutonium factory. Starting in 1944, its reactors churned out Pu-239 for the bomb that exploded at the Trinity test site and the bomb that exploded over Nagasaki. It produced all the Pu-239 for all the bombs in the country's nuclear arsenal into the 1950s, and kept producing it until 1989. Low-level waste produced in the early years was dumped into trenches. High-level waste was dumped into single-walled steel tanks. By the time plutonium production shut down, Hanford had become the most highly contaminated nuclear site in the Western Hemisphere, if not the world.

In 1989, the U.S. Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the state Department of Ecology (then headed by Chris Gregoire) signed a Tri Party Agreement under which the Energy Department would meet various guidelines for getting the waste out of the by-then leaky steel tanks, and generally cleaning up the site.

Under that agreement and a consent decree signed in 2010, the federal government is building the world's largest vitrification plant, designed to encase the most highly radioactive waste in borosilicate glass. The plant (technically the Hanford Site Waste Treatment and Mobilization Plant) has already more than doubled its original budget and fallen at least eight years behind its original schedule. It was originally supposed to start full production of glass logs sometime last year. Now the plant is supposed to be up and running by 2019. The last of the old single-walled tanks is supposed to be emptied by 2040. All the waste is supposed to be treated by 2047.

How plausible are these dates? Not very. The vit plant has been designed to produce glass logs for long-term storage at the Yucca Mountain waste repository, which may — and probably will — never be built. Some people doubt that the vit plant itself will ever work, or at least work long enough to process much of the waste. If a weld fails in one of the plant's "black cells," it may not be reparable. Once radiation builds up in the cells, no one expects human beings to go inside. Each cell will contain some 3900 linear feet of piping designed to last without maintenance for 40 years, the full period over which the plant is expected to process nuclear waste. What are the chances that a weld will fail? It turns out that nobody knows.

That is the takeaway from the Department of Energy Inspector General's draft vit plant audit, released in a dark corner of the news cycle on Friday afternoon, January 13. The construction contractor, Bechtel, allegedly hasn't had enough on-site inspectors qualified to interpret tests of nuclear-quality welds. So welds have gone into the black boxes without having been thoroughly vetted.

As a comment to the Tri-City Herald's report on the audit points out, Bechtel has been building nuclear plants for decades; that it should lack people who are certified to check nuclear welds is simply bizarre.

Of course, the audit is only a draft. Bechtel will have a chance to comment. Who knows what the final version will say?

Whatever it says, the audit hardly represents the only recent bit of bad news about construction of the vit plant, or progress toward the larger goal of getting highly radioactive wastes out of leaky tanks and ultimately out of Washington.

Take the project's culture of safety — or lack thereof: Over the past couple of years, two whistleblowers have claimed that Bechtel's culture discourages people from speaking up when they see that design or construction isn't safe. Now, the Department of Energy's own investigators have suggested more or less the same thing.

The department's Office of Enforcement and Oversight, which is part of its Office of Health, Safety and Security, has found "a definite unwillingness and uncertainty among employees about the ability to openly challenge management decisions. There are definite perceptions that there is not an environment conducive to raising concerns or where management wants or willingly listens to concerns. Most employees also believe that constructive criticism is not encouraged."

And then, of course, there's Yucca Mountain. In 1980, the federal government decided on deep geological disposal of waste from Hanford and the nation's civilian nuclear plants. Later in the decade, it started culling possible sites in 36 states, as a step toward creating two depositories, in separate regions. States in the East and Midwest objected.

In 1986, the feds narrowed the search to Washington, Texas, and Nevada — and to a single site. Nevada was the lucky winner. Nuclear Waste Policy Act amendments of 1987 called for studying and licensing a site at Yucca Mountain. In 2002, the Secretary of Energy finally recommended Yucca Mountain. President George W. Bush accepted the recommendation, Nevada's governor vetoed the choice, and Congress overrode his veto. Yucca Mountain it was.

Or not. Of course, people in Nevada didn't want it. Campaigning in Nevada, Barack Obama said that if he were elected, he'd kill the Yucca project, and his administration has tried to do just that. Nevada's Democratic Sen. Harry Reid — now Senate Majority Leader — has applauded the administration's efforts. As well he might; the administration has done its best to make good on that campaign promise.

"The Obama Administration, in conjunction with DOE, has taken three important steps directed toward terminating the Yucca Mountain project," Todd Garvey wrote in a Congressional Research Service report last year. "First, the Administration’s FY2011 budget proposal eliminated all funding for the Yucca Mountain project. Second, the President and Secretary of Energy, Steven Chu, established a Blue Ribbon Commission to consider alternative solutions to the nation’s nuclear waste challenge. Third, and most controversial, DOE has attempted to terminate the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC’s) Yucca Mountain licensing proceeding by seeking to withdraw the license application for the Yucca Mountain facility."

The icing on the cake: The DOE has tried to withdraw the license application with prejudice, which means it couldn't be re-submitted at a later date.

Meanwhile, State Attorney General Rob McKenna and other Washington officials have been fighting to keep the federal government from abandoning the Yucca project, as have state and county officials from South Carolina, which has its own radioactive leftovers from years of plutonium production at Savannah River.

Two years ago, the state intervened before the NRC’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board, which denied the DOE's motion to withdraw. The dismantling of Yucca continued, though. The DOE appealed to the NRC. Washington and South Carolina sued in the D.C. Circuit Court to keep the DOE from terminating the Yucca site. The court found that the issue was premature, because the NRC hadn't acted yet.

Washington then asked for a mandate forcing the NRC to decide, and to consider the DOE's application on its merits.

Last September, though, fate — or politics — intervened on behalf of Nevada. The NRC announced that it had deadlocked on the issue of withdrawal — but ordered the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board to close out all the issues before it by the end of the month.

"The NRC, under the direction of Chairman Gregory Jaczko (a former staff aide for Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada), stopped NRC staff from considering the Yucca license application, despite a decision by NRC's own licensing board that the license application cannot be withdrawn," Bob Ferguson, former president and current chair of the Tri-City Development Council (TRIDEC) and TRIDEC board member Bill Lampson, both of whom are individual plaintiffs in the Yucca litigation, wrote recently in the Seattle Times. "Legislation was overwhelmingly passed by the House prohibiting Jaczko's efforts to kill Yucca, but Reid blocked Senate consideration."

By this time, virtually everyone assumes Yucca is dead. Washington gets its day in court this May.

Ferguson and Lampson were encouraging members of the Washington delegation — pointedly including McKenna's political rival, Jay Inslee — to do everything in their power to revive Yucca. But how realistic is that? By this time, what would even a favorable court decision change? Hasn't the whole issue become moot?

Obama doesn't want Yucca Mountain. Harry Reid doesn't want it. The funding for it has disappeared. The bureaucratic infrastructure for it has been dismantled. The much-hyped revival of the American nuclear power industry, which might have increased the pressure to build it, hasn't happened. (Can you say "cheap natural gas?" Can you say, "no carbon tax?" Can you say, "Fukushima?")

And now, in its final report, the "Blue Ribbon Commission" has recommended Plan B. Whatever that is. For anyone who read last year's interim report, there are no surprises. Yucca Mountain was never even on the table:

"Although not expressly prohibited from considering Yucca Mountain as a potential solution to the nation’s nuclear waste problems," Todd Garvey wrote, "Secretary Chu and the White House have conveyed that the Commission should focus only on 'alternatives' to Yucca Mountain. Accordingly, the Commission co-chairs have stated that 'Secretary Chu has made it quite clear that nuclear waste storage at Yucca Mountain is not an option.'"

"In a February 11, 2011, letter to Co-chairs [former Indiana Congressman Lee] Hamilton and [former National Security Advisor Brent] Scowcroft," Garvey continued, "Secretary Chu reaffirmed that the Commission should not be considering Yucca Mountain as a viable nuclear waste disposal solution. Chu reiterated that it was time to 'turn the page and look for a better solution—one that is not only scientifically sound but that also can achieve a greater level of public acceptance than would have been possible at Yucca Mountain. It is time to move beyond the 25 year old stalemate over Yucca Mountain.'”

Basically — with no time table, budget or process — the commission has recommended dumping the nation's nuclear waste some place where people will welcome it. Just where is that likely to be? In some galaxy far, far away? In essence, the committee has recommended kicking the can down the road.

In the meantime, the feds and their contractor, Bechtel, are still hurrying to build the vit plant. That's evidently one of the problems. "There's a lot of pressure … from Congress, from the state, from the community to make progress," a senior U.S. government scientist told USA Today. As a result, "the design processes are cut short, the safety analyses are cut short, and the oversight is cut short. … We have to stop now and figure out how to do this right, before we move any further."

Why not stop and figure it out? That waste isn't going anywhere — except, perhaps, to the Columbia River.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan is an author, attorney, and writer of many articles about Northwest environmental issues.