Yucca Mountain

Yucca Mountain, the Nevada-based, scientifically flawed and politically unjust proposed high-level radioactive waste repository has now been canceled. However, pro-nuclear forces in Congress have not abandoned Yucca and funding is still allocated to the project.



Is Yucca dump dead yet?!

This Jan., 2004 photo by Gabriela Bulisova shows the frame of a sacred ceremonial Western Shoshone sweat lodge, with Yucca's west face in the background.As reported by the Las Vegas Review Journal, U.S. Senator Harry Reid (Democrat-Nevada), Majority Leader, called today's decision by the Federal Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit regarding the Yucca Mountain, Nevada high-level radioactive waste dump "an important win in the long battle to put the ill-conceived Yucca Mountain project permanently to rest." The three-judge federal appeals panel ruled against a lawsuit filed by the States of Washington and South Carolina, Aiken County (South Carolina), and three private (nuclear industry affiliated) businessmen in Washington State seeking to block the Obama administration's cancellation of the Yucca dump.

July seems to be the month for major Yucca decisions. On July 9, 2002, the U.S. Senate voted 60 to 39 to allow the U.S. Department of Energy to proceed with a construction and operations license application to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which George W. Bush signed into law two weeks later. Then, on July 9, 2004, the DC Circuit Court of Appeals (although comprised of a different three judge panel) ruled in favor of the State of Nevada and an environmental coalition, ordering the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency back to the drawing board on its Yucca regulations (EPA had wanted to cut off regulations at 10,000 years, long before Yucca's worst radiation releases downstream; under court order, EPA acknowledged in 2008 that high-level radioactive waste at Yucca would remain hazardous for a million years!).

Although a major battle victory, today's ruling does not end this 25+ year long war over the Yucca dump. Under law, the NRC has until later this year (with the possibility for a one year extension) to issue a final "yea or nay" on DOE's 2008 Yucca application. In March 2010, Obama Energy Secretary Steven Chu moved to withdraw the application, but in late June 2010 a panel of three administrative law judges at NRC (the Atomic Safety (sic) and Licensing Board, or ASLB) rejected the motion. The five NRC Commissioners have yet to sustain or overrule the ASLB ruling.

Reflecting the national significance of this court ruling is the widespread media coverage: Associated Press; The Hill (times two!); Hanford News and Tri-City Herald (Washington State); Augusta Chronicle (Georgia). The coverage is likely to expand as word spreads.


Waxman reminds Republican witch hunters that Obama and Chu cancelled Yucca, not Jaczko

U.S. Representative Henry Waxman (D-CA, pictured at left), ranking Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, today reminded his Republican colleagues that the President of the United States of America, Barack Obama, and his Energy Secretary, Steven Chu, cancelled the proposed high-level radioactive waste dump targeted at Yucca Mountain. Such basic clarification was necessary, as House Republicans were continuing their pro-Yucca dump witch hunt, attempting to scapegoat U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Greg Jaczko for his actions to phase out NRC's Yucca regulatory activities. Waxman spoke at an Environment and the Economy subcommittee hearing chaired by Rep. John Shimkus (R-IL), a longtime champion of the nuclear power industry from the state with more high-level radioactive waste than any other. "Nuclear Illinois" is the most nuclear powered state in the country, with 11 still operating reactors, 3 closed reactors, and even an away-from-reactor high-level radioactive waste storage pool. The G.E.-Morris "independent spent fuel storage installation" would have been a reprocessing facility save for its major design and construction flaws, as well as bipartisan presidential policy set by Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter banning reprocessing due to its inherent nuclear weapons proliferation risks. Multiple Republican Congressman lined up to sully NRC Chairman Jaczko's reputation, even hinting that he had broken the law. But an NRC Office of Inspector General report, as reported by the Las Vegas Review Journal, has cleared NRC Chairman Jaczko of any legal wrongdoing, a conclusion re-emphasized by subcommittee ranking Democrat Gene Green of Texas. Ms. Haney, NRC director of Nuclear Materials Safety and Safeguards, also testified that Jaczko had acted within his authority and powers as NRC Chairman. Despite calls by Republican Congressmen to resign over the matter, Jaczko has responded that he serves at the pleasure of President Obama, which he will continue to do until directed otherwise. Rep. Ed Markey from Massachusetts, a senior Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has said that when President Obama and Energy Secretary Chu decided to cancel the Yucca dump, Jaczko "did what any permitting office would do when a building plan is canceled. He stopped spending money processing the permit."

AP published an article based on the NRC staffpersons' prepared remarks for the House committee. The article reports that a senior NRC staff person on the Yucca Mountain review, Aby Mohseni, "just last week took the rare step of appealing a decision to the commission," that senior NRC leadership, especially Chairman Jaczko, was shutting down a process that should continue, and withholding analyses that should be made public. Mohseni was quoted as saying "It is becoming a little more obvious to all the staff here that things are not right...It has been a struggle for me to find a way to bring light on this issue so that at some point we will get this agency back on track to where it needs to be. Once politics penetrates the barrier into staff activities, we will quickly lose credibility with the public." But what about an NRC "contrarian" like Dr. Ross Landsman, who worked within NRC's system for decades to warn that dry cask storage of high-level radioactive waste at Palisades on the Lake Michigan shoreline violated NRC earthquake safety regulations? His warnings have been ignored by NRC since 1994, putting the drinking water supply for 40 million people at risk. If only his dispute with senior NRC leadership had gotten the honor and attention of a full congressional hearing, and Associated Press coverage. And is there nothing "political" about NRC's virtual rubberstamp of every nuclear proposal that comes before it -- such as 68 of 68 license extensions at dangerously degraded old reactors? Fortunately, AP did investigate that issue -- publishing a four part series last week on aging nukes.


Congressional investigator testifies on "lessons learned" from Yucca Mountain, including tricks for winning public support for dumps

Mark Gaffigan, Managing Director of Natural Resources and Environment at the Government Accountability Office, Congress's investigative arm, testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Environment and the Econonmy on June 1, 2011. His prepared remarks were entitled "Nuclear Waste: Disposal Challenges and Lessons Learned from Yucca Mountain." Gaffigan conveyed a summary of the history of the radioactive wreck that U.S. high-level radioactive waste management has been for over half a century, including aborted attempts to open "deep geologic disposal sites," or dumps. He also marked the shift towards attempts at opening parking lots dumps, or "centralized interim storage sites," as targeted at the Skull Valley Goshutes Indian Reservation in Utah by the nuclear power utilities and Nuclear Regulatory Commission -- as advocated by President Obama and Energy Secretary Chu's "Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Futurue."

In his concluding section entitled "Principal Lessons Learned that Could Facilitate Future Nuclear Waste Storage or Disposal Efforts," Gaffigan testified that federal government "transparency" and "cooperation" with local and state governments would help win support for dumps. He said "Education has helped foster public acceptance. For example, DOE's contractor at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant gained public acceptance through education and training programs on the safe transportation of radioactive waste. One important aspect of education has been to dispel the inaccurate perception that nuclear waste poses risks comparable to nuclear weapons." (emphasis added) This last point is a real red herring -- opponents to risky radioactive waste transportation don't compare it to nuclear weapons risks. Also, WIPP shipments are risky, and have suffered accidents. In one, a collision spewed plutonium within a WIPP container that had already traveled 1,000 miles and had almost arrived at WIPP. Rather than contaminate WIPP surface facilities by opening the damaged container there, the shipment was sent 1,000 miles to Idaho, doubling transport risks with an already damaged container.

Gaffigan also emphasized the importance of financial "incentives" for dump host localities and states. Such tactics will undoubtedly be deployed to overcome resistance in the future, as the final BRC report in early 2012 will launch a new round of targeting "parking lot dumps."


The year in Yucca Mountain (well, thus far anyway)

Aerial image of Yucca Mountain's ridge lineThe Las Vegas Review Journal is the paper of record on the proposed Yucca Mountain high-level radioactive waste dump. Its archive for 2011 describes the latest twists and turns in the more than 25 year roller coaster ride at the Yucca Mountain Project. This includes a U.S. House Republican witch hunt targeting U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Greg Jaczko for the Obama administration's decision to cancel the project, even though its been clearly established by the NRC's Office of Inspector General that Jaczko has acted within the law, and within his authority over NRC's budget and administration, in his moves to end NRC's licensing activities surrounding Yucca. However, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, the second highest court in the land, could rule at any time now on a case brought by the State of Washington, the State of South Carolina, Aiken County (South Carolina), and a trio of Washington State businessmen, challening Obama's Yucca cancellation as illegal.


WHO gave Congressman Upton his marching orders to promote the Yucca dump?!

U.S. Congressman Fred Upton (R-MI), chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee A Heritage Foundation blog states that "[Congressman] Upton’s work on Yucca Mountain spans 20 years, dating to his first term in Congress while serving on the Energy and Commerce Committee. He was originally tasked with building bipartisan support for Yucca — support that he believes remains, despite the actions of the Obama administration to derail the project." (emphasis added) Indeed, Upton was the primary sponsor of the "Mobile Chernobyl" bills each session of Congress from 1995 to 2000, which would have opened the Yucca dump long before scientific studies had been completed. Upton's legislation was vetoed by President Clinton on the 14th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe (April 26, 2000); the U.S. Senate sustained Clinton's veto on May 2, 2000. Upton has continued to lead the promotion of the Yucca dump to the present day, as by his current witchhunt against NRC Chairman Greg Jaczko, who has decided to zero out the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's budget for Yucca licensing activities, given President Obama and Energy Secretary Chu's cancellation of the project in 2009-2010. But WHO gave Upton such marching orders to promote the Yucca dump in the first place? This is not made clear by the Heritage blogger. Was it lobbyists at the Nuclear Energy Institute? Or Upton's superiors in the House Republican Party of the mid-1980s? Beyond Nuclear has prepared a full length exposé on Upton's pro-nuclear advocacy in return for large nuclear industry contributions to his congressional election campaigns, as well as a concise summary. The exposé is fully documented by a compilation of both Political Action Committees and individual donors closely tied to the nuclear power industry.