DOE fights Nevada nuke waste battle

DOE fights Nevada nuke waste battle

YUCCA MOUNTAIN, NEV.--You don't have to spend much time on the tiny train that whisks researchers and visitors five miles into the mountain before you begin to think you know what went through Jonah's mind during his encounter with the whale. Far below Nevada's windswept desert, the train rumbles down a dimly lit, 25-foot-wide tunnel, where thick metal ribs hold back tons of gray rock.

Since 1994, the Energy Department has been burrowing into this mountain, 100 miles north of Las Vegas and on the edge of a federal nuclear weapons testing site. The point of the digging--an $18 billion project involving 1,500 workers--is to let scientists determine whether this ancient volcanic mound can safely contain highly radioactive waste for hundreds of thousands of years.

For now, nearly 35,000 metric tons of spent, but still deadly, fuel rods and other toxic waste are stowed in concrete casks and water-filled cooling pools at 70 commercial nuclear power plants across the nation. Though the federal government will, by law, ultimately be responsible for doing something with the waste, Energy Department officials have so far refused to touch it. They argue that until the long-term usefulness of the Yucca Mountain site has been assessed, their hands are tied.

Last November, however, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled that the government is legally bound to remove the waste. Now nuclear utilities and states that host nuclear power plants are poised to slap Uncle Sam with billions of dollars in claims for breach of contract and for the costs of storing additional waste at the already-overburdened power plants.

At the same time, the utilities and the states are pressing Congress to pass legislation ordering Energy to build a separate, temporary, above-ground dump near Yucca Mountain that would be used until the permanent underground vault is completed. But President Clinton has vowed to veto that measure, and Senate nuclear power proponents are said to be two votes short of the 67 they would need to override a White House thumbs-down.

As the political and legal wrangling escalates in Washington, so do questions about Yucca Mountain. For one thing, scientists are examining new evidence that rainwater can filter into the repository far faster than was once assumed. If that's true, the water could corrode waste containers and contaminate sources of water for local farmers.

Researchers are also studying whether the repository could survive the earthquakes that are inevitable in the fault-riddled region. And they're conducting elaborate tests of how the mountain's interior might stand up to the intense heat that the more-than-70,000 metric tons of nuclear waste would generate during the next 10,000 years of its slow deterioration.

Despite those fundamental concerns, government scientists and regulators maintain that the mountain will be a first-rate place for storing the lethal waste. "In my opinion, there is no single factor that's likely to be a show-stopper," said Tim Sullivan, the Energy Department geologist leading the team that's drafting a report on Yucca Mountain due to be submitted to Congress this fall.

Still, federal scientists no longer offer resounding assurances that the mountain's geological features would prevent seepage. Indeed, researchers say they're turning to new high-technology ways of isolating the waste and leak-proofing its containers. Federal specialists also concede that not all of their tests will be completed by 2002, when the department has said it wants to ask the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a license to operate the dump.

That further riles Nevada state officials and environmental groups, who've been in a snit ever since Congress picked Nevada for the site because, they maintain, certain powerful lawmakers didn't want the stuff in their own backyards. The locals contend that the federal government is hell-bent to roll the waste down into their mountain, even if critical safety questions remain. "Most Americans thought that once you put the waste in this big hole underneath this mountain, you'd have zero release," said Judy A. Treichel, executive director of the Nevada Nuclear Waste Task Force, a Las Vegas-based group opposed to the dumping. "The real story is that radiation releases are very likely."

How Nevada Lucked Out

The debate in Washington has centered on health and money. Nuclear power opponents contend that the Yucca Mountain site isn't safe. Utilities and states with nuclear power plants counter that if the waste isn't quickly taken off their hands, the federal government will wind up spending as much as it did resolving the savings and loan crisis.

In the middle of the fray are Congress and the White House, which have traditionally been loath to force any state to take this mother lode of highly radioactive trash.

In the 1950s, federal officials planned to reprocess the nuclear waste to make new power plant fuel, a practice adopted by France. But the plan was jettisoned in the United States because of worries that the reprocessed, souped-up fuel might be stolen by terrorist groups and used to make nuclear weapons.

Federal scientists next recommended reviewing potential storage sites throughout the country to find places with rock that would best hold in the radiation. But in 1982, Congress scrapped that expensive and politically unpopular approach and ordered the Energy Department to focus on broad tracts of federal land in Nevada, Texas and Washington.

In 1987, Congress singled out Nevada's Yucca Mountain as the single site that government scientists could concentrate on. That deal was sealed with the help of then-House Speaker Jim Wright, D-Texas, and then-House Majority Leader Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash., who didn't want the nation's nuclear waste in their states. Yucca Mountain has been under a microscope ever since, although research has been frequently delayed by Nevada's legal challenges and, at times, by a lack of federal cash.

Politics still weighs heavily in the dispute. Energy Department officials say they won't file their report on Yucca Mountain's suitability with Congress until after the November elections, to keep their recommendations from becoming partisan fodder.

Utility industry executives also claim that Clinton has promised to veto pending bills that would authorize the temporary, above-ground waste site near Yucca Mountain as a favor to two friends: Nevada's Democratic Gov. Robert J. Miller and Clinton's former college buddy and frequent golf partner Brian Greenspun, now editor of The Las Vegas Sun.

Meanwhile, to attract support for their temporary-repository bills, pro-nuclear lawmakers have agreed to ban shipment of any high-level commercial nuclear waste to Energy Department facilities in South Carolina, Tennessee and Washington. Some have speculated that those sites--which are already taking radioactive waste shipments from foreign governments and from the Defense Department--could be used as stopgap holding facilities for nuclear waste if work on a permanent underground repository is further delayed. In return for the proposed ban, lawmakers from those three states have staunchly supported the temporary-repository legislation.

In 1995, then-Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary unleashed a torrent of legal actions when she announced that the department would not begin collecting waste from commercial nuclear power plants by the congressionally mandated deadline of Jan. 31, 1998. She reasoned that Uncle Sam's obligation to take the material kicked in only after a permanent repository was completed.

The Search for a Compromise

Nuclear utilities and their host states immediately sued the government for breach of contract. In November 1997, a federal appeals court rejected the Energy Department's arguments and ordered the two sides to try to strike a compromise. The middle ground, however, has been elusive.

Energy offered to reimburse utilities for storing the waste at their plants. Department officials wanted to cover the storage costs with cash drawn from the $14 billion Nuclear Waste Fund, a pot of money fed by a fee on the electricity that nuclear plants generate. Created in 1982, the fund is supposed to underwrite the construction of a permanent waste repository.

Bristling at Energy's offer, the utilities and concerned states have asked the D.C. Court of Appeals to appoint a special master to run Energy's nuclear waste disposal program. They also want the court to bar Energy from using the Nuclear Waste Fund to pay for temporary storage at the power plants. And they want all future payments to the fund placed in an escrow account.

First and foremost on the utility executives' minds is getting rid of all that lethal waste. "We want legislation that moves fuel," said Angelina Howard, senior vice president for industry communications at the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), a Washington-based trade association. "We need government to meet its obligation."

Meanwhile, many utilities are also gearing up to sue the federal government for damages. "All good attorneys are mining the industry for clients," said Mike McCarthy, administrator of the Nuclear Waste Strategy Coalition, a St. Paul (Minn.)-based alliance of state officials and utility companies.

The size of Energy's potential liability could depend in part on how long it takes the department to take custody of the radioactive material. Industry spokesmen argue that nearly every nuclear utility will run out of storage space if the existing waste isn't moved before the Yucca Mountain underground repository is completed--in 2010, at the earliest. Those utilities will have to build new storage facilities or, they say, shut down their nuclear-fueled operations.

Even after Yucca Mountain opens for business (if it does), Energy will need at least 12 years to load up and move the waste. Industry's additional storage costs would amount to $500 million-$750 million a year, according to Eileen Supko, who is a nuclear engineer and senior consultant with Energy Resources International, a private research group, and is studying the nuclear waste issue for the NEI.

In addition, the utilities are likely to demand that Energy return the billions the industry has contributed to the Nuclear Waste Fund, Supko predicted. The utilities are also expected to seek compensation for a variety of other alleged damages. For firms forced to shut down their nuclear power plants, the damages could include the cost of buying replacement power. Other utilities might want compensation for the lower bond ratings they now receive because of their nuclear waste backup, she noted.

All in all, if the federal government doesn't move quickly, it could be handed a $56 billion bill for storage and damages, she said. Other nuclear power advocates, including Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee chairman Frank H. Murkowski, R-Alaska, argue that the federal government's liability could soar to as much as $80 billion.

But Nevada officials and environmental advocates argue that those costs are grossly inflated. A study by the Critical Mass Energy Project of Public Citizen, a Ralph Nader-funded consumer protection group, argues that the total cost of added storage space at nuclear-fueled power plants would be in the $600 million range.

The Political Stakes Are High

Not surprisingly, the debate dominates Nevada politics. In April, two top Democrats--Sen. Richard H. Bryan and retiring Gov. Miller--announced that they wouldn't support fellow Democratic state Sen. Joe Neal's bid for governor, because he's regarded as "soft" on nuclear waste. Bryan and Miller charged that Neal has advocated negotiating instead of fighting, and Miller said he spoke out in hopes of prodding other Democrats to declare for the governor's race before the mid-May filing deadline.

Neal, who for 25 years worked for a contractor for the Yucca Mountain project, complained that his views are being misrepresented. But he maintained that it is time to face the reality that Congress is on the brink of forcing the state to make room--like it or not--for much of the nation's nuclear waste. In return, he said, the state should be entitled to federal financing for substantial transportation system improvements. "We should also demand large amounts of cash," he said in a statement. (Neal also accused Bryan and Miller of fronting for the Nevada gambling industry, which opposes Neal's proposal to hike gambling taxes.)

Meanwhile, in the Nevada Senate race, each candidate claims to be the more anti-nuclear. Democratic Sen. Harry M. Reid and his challenger, Republican Rep. John Ensign, loudly complain that they don't want the nation's red-hot waste in Nevada.

Reid, working with Bryan, has been barnstorming across the country, delivering warnings in several cities that nuclear waste is likely to be shipped through their communities, endangering local residents. Ensign, for his part, scored an impressive strategic coup and won political points back home early this year when he used a parliamentary technicality to delay legislation authorizing construction of the temporary, above-ground waste site near Yucca Mountain.

In recent days, House and Senate leaders have been trying a new path to pass the nuclear waste bill. Murkowski and House Commerce Committee chairman Thomas J. Bliley Jr., R-Va., are trying to hammer out a compromise that both the House and Senate could quickly approve. That would save several time-consuming steps in this short congressional session. Nevertheless, Senate leaders are still fighting to pick up the two votes they need if they are to override the promised presidential veto of the measure.

Nevadans have one or two more aces up their sleeves before the nuclear waste shipments begin rolling into that state. Once Energy formally selects Nevada as the waste site, state officials plan to sue the federal government, charging that state law prohibits storage of nuclear waste.

However, McCarthy of the state-and-industry Nuclear Waste Strategy Coalition argued that Nevada's states' rights case has been severely undercut by rulings in a New Mexico case. In that suit, the state unsuccessfully tried to block the federal government from storing mid-level waste from atomic weapons research at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad. Shipments to that site could begin this summer.

Federal law also gives the Nevada governor the right to veto Uncle Sam's selection of the underground Yucca Mountain disposal site. But that rejection could be overridden by a vote of Congress.

Many in Nevada believe that, in any event, if a temporary, above-ground nuclear waste dump is located in their state, work on the Yucca Mountain repository might abruptly end. Not true, protested NEI's Howard, who noted that the bills to build a temporary repository in Nevada provide additional money for the underground waste facility.

But Treichel of the Nevada Nuclear Waste Task Force said utility executives have conceded to her that, once the waste is off their property, they don't want to continue paying for what is becoming "a gold-plated" dump. And workers at the Yucca site say rumors abound that their jobs will be in jeopardy if the temporary waste site is approved, Sullivan said.

"This is a phenomenally difficult sell," Sullivan said, speaking of convincing the scientific community and the public that Yucca Mountain's underground repository will be safe. "We have to convince the technical audience that we've done a credible job. We won't have complete confidence in all areas, so we'll have to show that any problems will be taken care of with backup systems."

Despite the scientific and political uncertainties, Nevada is in the bull's-eye among politicians and utility industry executives desperate for a place to stash the nation's high-level nuclear waste.

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