Summary of Hearings on Nuclear Waste Management (8-7-06)
The Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources convened in the final week of business before the August recess to discuss S. 2589, the Nuclear Fuel Disposal Act. The bill was introduced by Senators Pete V. Domenici (R - NM) and James M. Inhofe (R - OK) on April 6, 2006 at the request of the Department of Energy (DOE). The bill contains a number of components deemed critical to the furtherance and success of the Yucca Mountain Project, including stipulations for the land withdrawal and the Nuclear Regulation Commission's (NRC) licensing process, release of the Nuclear Waste Fund (NWF), and the acquisition of water rights for the project. The bill also raises the cap on the amount of material that can be stored at Yucca from the 70,000 metric ton limit that had been administratively imposed to an amount consistent with the geological potential of the area.
Committee Chairman Domenici's chief concerns were the timeline for construction and the time needed to transport waste to the repository. Mr. Sproat's office recently released a goal of opening the Yucca Mountain facility on March 31, 2017 (see House hearing summary below). However, this estimate does not contain any flexibility for future delays that may result from technical issues or from possible litigation. Once the facility does open, and assuming that the 70,000 metric ton cap has been significantly raised, it will still take at least another 23 years beyond the 2017 opening date to transport all of the current nuclear waste to the facility at a rate of 3,000 metric tons per year, the estimated capacity of the transportation infrastructure. According to information provided to Chairman Domenici by industry, at least 25 new nuclear reactors are currently slated to be built; these will generate new waste destined for Yucca Mountain. For these reasons, the Chairman strongly advocates implementing a practical interim solution that should include the development of nuclear reactors that use recycled fuel to reduce the volume and toxicity of the material that must be stored.
Ranking Member Jeff Bingaman (D - NM) was skeptical about some of the terms of the legislation. Specifically, he observed that the bill did not appear to affect the process by which the DOE must apply to the NRC for a license to store nuclear material; the application is not due to be submitted until 2008. He was also concerned about the vague language that authorizes funding for "infrastructure activities," but does not specify what these activities are. The senator wanted assurances that this bill would not include building an interim storage facility or a railroad to the Yucca Mountain repository from the national rail system.
Senator Harry Reid (D - NV) called the Yucca Mountain a "scientifically unsound project" that threatens the health of Americans. The DOE has a record of falsifying data on the project, yet they are now asking Congress to trust them as they move forward with plans that they have not yet released. Moreover, Congress has every reason to believe those plans may be faulty because the contractor, Bechtel, is the same company responsible for the deadly fiasco at the Big Dig. According to NRC estimates, dry cask storage is viable for one to two hundred years. The Chairman's testimony indicates that most of the country's nuclear waste will be stored in this manner until late in this century no matter how smoothly the Yucca Mountain Project is carried out. If we abandon this "dead" project in favor of accepting the reality of decentralized dry cask storage, we would save at least $45 billion, and probably more.
Senator John Ensign (R - NV) added that Yucca Mountain actually makes nuclear energy less economically viable because of the enormous costs of the project. A major problem posed by the proposed land withdrawal is its interference with Nellis Air Force Base. The withdrawal would close the airspace above the 147,000-acre facility, airspace currently used by Nellis to mimic conditions in the middle-east for training purposes. The Senator also pooh-poohed security arguments against decentralized storage because none of the projections for the Yucca Mountain Project expect that 100% of our nuclear waste will ever be stored there. Senator Maria Cantwell (D - WA) supported this claim, advising the committee that only 13 - 18% of the nuclear material at Hanford, a nuclear facility in Washington State where the plutonium for "Little Boy" and "Fat Man" was produced, would be stored at Yucca.
Mr. Sproat described the six crucial components of S. 2589. 1. Release of the NWF will provide stability of funding to the program while maintaining congressional oversight. 2. Land withdrawal would permanently prevent public use of the land, a condition of NRC acceptance of any licensing proposal. 3. Removing the 70,000 metric ton cap on storage capacity and allowing a scientific assessment of true capacity will prevent DOE from having to build a second repository in the very near future. 4. Declaring the Yucca Mountain Project to be "in the public interest" will override the State of Nevada's legislation to the contrary and thus compel the state to provide water rights to the facility. 5. Giving DOE authority to regulate the transport of nuclear waste materials (superseding state regulations) will ensure efficient, fast transport of materials to the facility. 6. The legislation will allow the nuclear industry to move forward with licensing new facilities by addressing the need for waste confidence.
Mr. Virgilio, testifying on the behalf of NRC, cited one significant problem with S. 2589. Language in section 4 of the bill requires that the NRC produce a full review of DOE's license application within one year of submittal. According to Mr. Virgilio's testimony, this timeframe will be insufficient to perform the necessary environmental assessments and will prevent the NRC from meeting its statutory obligations. As such, the commission requests that this language be changed to allow two years from the date of submittal for the review. Mr. Beasley concurred with the Chairman and the senators from Nevada that an economic, centrally-located interim storage facility would be necessary; he pressed the committee to hasten the removal of on-site nuclear waste to encourage the licensing and building of new facilities.
Mr. Loux and Mr. Fettus argued vehemently against the legislation,
saying that it weakens or eliminates regulatory oversight on both
the transport and disposal of nuclear waste. Mr. Loux, who spoke on
behalf of the Governor of Nevada, pointed out that the ability of
the DOE to supersede states' constitutional rights sets a dangerous
precedent, not only for Nevada but for every state in the union. Both
men argued that the choice of Yucca Mountain for the waste repository
was politically motivated and not scientifically sound.
For over twenty years, the Department of Energy (DOE) has been attempting to open a nuclear waste repository and has focused its efforts on Yucca Mountain, an uninhabited ridge in the Nevada desert. Failure to open a repository facility by 1998 has placed the Department in breach of contract with nuclear energy utilities across the country, resulting in billions of dollars of settlement payments. Furthermore, the rise in oil prices and concerns over global warming have resulted in a "renaissance" for nuclear energy that has brought the current and projected need for waste storage to a point of crisis. DOE's efforts to get the Yucca Mountain facility up and running have been delayed and have prompted the President's selection of a new director for the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management (OCRWM) from the nuclear energy industry. Mr. Edward F. Sproat III took office only five weeks ago and has issued a timeline for completion of the Yucca Mountain facility, which is scheduled to begin receipt of waste materials on March 31, 2017.
Subcommittee Chairman Ralph M. Hall (R - TX) made clear in his opening remarks his support for the Yucca Mountain project. New nuclear plants must be built, he said, but before industry is willing to invest they must have some guarantee that DOE will provide a facility for waste disposal. The chairman requested that, in addition to the timeline already submitted, Mr. Sproat's office produce a funding profile for the plan.
Ranking member Rick Boucher (D - VA) expressed concern over the amount of money that electricity consumers have paid into the Yucca Mountain trust fund. These consumers have been paying for decades, even when they no longer use power generated by a nuclear facility. In addition, that fund has repeatedly been mined for other projects and is not currently protected for the exclusive purpose of funding construction at Yucca Mountain.
Mr. Sproat, who brought a great deal of energy and vigor to the witness stand, agreed that the expansion of nuclear energy facilities is necessary for the U.S. to meet current and future energy demands and that the delays in developing a waste repository is a stumbling block to increasing U.S. nuclear energy capacity. He went on to outline four strategic objectives that he intends to pursue: (1) submit a complete license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) by June 30, 2008; (2) build up the OCRWM organization with highly skilled professionals who are able to address all of the needs of designing, licensing and managing the construction of the Yucca Mountain project; (3) address DOE's liability for its contracts with the owners of nuclear power plants by employing "a portfolio of legal and financial solutions;" and (4) address the issue of transporting spent fuel. "The whole issue of transportation has been under-funded, and not enough attention [has been] paid to it." According to an NRC report cited in Mr. Sproat's testimony, there are a number of "social and institutional challenges" that will have to be addressed before the widespread transport of nuclear material may commence. Mr. Sproat urged the committee to move with all haste to get the "Nuclear Fuel Management Disposal Act," a package of legislation previously submitted by DOE, through Congress. The legislation would allow DOE to permanently withdraw the land for the repository-a step necessary for licensing-and would allow access to the fund created for the purpose of building a nuclear waste facility.
Congressman Joe Barton (R - TX) expressed concern that
the DOE legislation would not pass the Senate. If that were to be
the case, Mr. Sproat replied, it would not affect the timetable in
the near term, but would be catastrophic to the overall effort. He
then offered to act as a facilitator to build consensus and win passage
of the bill. In response to questions raised by the committee, Mr.
Sproat offered two main insights: First, that interim storage, while
not wholly objectionable, would be unlikely to buy much time for the
project, since licensing and litigation could easily stretch to 2017
and beyond. This analysis flies in the face of an earlier decision
by the House Committee on Appropriations to provide funding and advocacy
for centralized interim storage. Second, the administrative cap on
Yucca Mountain's waste capacity should be raised. Senators Pete Domenici
(R - NM) and James Inhofe (R - OK) have already introduced a bill
(S. 2589) to raise the current limit of 70,000 metric tons to coincide
with the repository's geologic capacity in order to avoid building
a second facility in the near future (see AGI's Nuclear Waste Legislation
On March 15, Deputy Secretary of Energy Clay Sell testified before the House Subcommittee on Energy and Air Quality in a hearing on the status of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste storage program. In his testimony, Sell detailed the importance of Yucca Mountain, adding, "This administration and the Department of Energy are committed to aggressively moving forward with Yucca Mountain."
Committee members questioned Sell about the administration's proposed legislation on how to re-invigorate the Yucca Mountain project, which is expected to be released by the Department of Energy (DOE) later this month. Representative John Dingell (D-MI) noted that despite the imminent legislation, DOE will not release plans for restructuring the repository until the summer. Dingell expressed concern that the timing offset between the legislation and the plans could prevent Congress from passing any legislation on the project this year. In response, Sell told the committee "We want to be quite sure that when we put out the Yucca Mountain revised schedule, it will be one we are confident will ultimately result in the granting of a license by NRC."
Representatives also questioned Sell on the specifics of the legislative proposal. DOE officials have said the proposal will ensure funding for the Yucca Mountain project by giving DOE direct access to the Yucca Mountain trust fund rather than relying on congressional appropriations. Sell told the committee the bill would give the DOE access to "at a minimum" the annual receipts into the fund, totaling roughly $750 million each year.
For the full text of witness testimony, click here.
On Friday, July 1, 2005, the House Government Reform Subcommittee on the Federal Workforce and Agency Organization held a hearing on the "Yucca Mountain Project: Digging for the Truth." Although this particular subcommittee does not have supervision over the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear repository, the subcommittee has been investigating allegations that federal employees have falsified data related to the site evaluation of Yucca Mountain. A previous hearing held on April 6th included testimony from several government representatives related to the ongoing investigation that stemmed from a series of e-mails written from 1998 to 2000 that suggested data falsification may have occurred.
Mr. Joseph Hevesi, a USGS hydrologist, appeared under subpoena and was questioned regarding e-mails he had written to colleagues during his time working as a water infiltration computer modeler for the Yucca Mountain Project. Chairman Jon Porter (R-NV) and other members questioned Hevesi for over two hours, with Chairman Porter stating at the outset that the subcommittee "will not be deterred and will continue to seek the truth behind the allegations."
Chairman Porter read excerpts of several of Hevesi's e-mails, including the following:
12/17/98 - " [Yucca Mountain Project] has now reached a point where they need to have certain items work no matter what, and the infiltration maps are on the list."
12/18/98 - "The bottom line is forget about the money, we need a product or we're screwed and will take the blame."
11/15/99 - "In the end I keep track of 2 sets of files, the ones that keep [Quality Assurance] happy and the ones that were actually used."
Hevesi stated that he had "never falsified any documents regarding Yucca Mountain or any other project.'' He explained his e-mails as "water cooler talk" and "raw emotional responses" to the pressure he was under from management to produce reports under strict timetables.
In his responses, Hevesi put Porter's e-mail excerpts into context. Referring to an email in which he said he kept two sets of data files, one that meets quality assurance criteria and one that doesn't, Hevesi explained that, while numerically identical, the quality assurance files had to have identifying header information, while another set had to be formatted differently for a computer modelling program. He also denied that another e-mail, which read, "certain items need to work no matter what" meant that he falsified data. In this email, Hevesi explained that he was simply referring to the task of getting a computer program up and running properly. In all of his emails, Hevesi explained in his testimony that "fudge factor doesn't mean falsification," but rather a placeholder estimate that scientists must make when there are too many unknowns in solving a problem. Hevesi added, "I had a reputation for being flippant in my e-mail."
Hevesi apologized at the end of his testimony for not understanding at the time the seriousness of the e-mail correspondence. Many committee members seemed satisfied with his explanations; Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) thanked him for his service and suggested that "if someone had to look at all of our e-mails they might have a field day." Even though no "smoking gun" of falsification was revealed during Hevesi's testimony, all of the work Hevesi contributed to the Yucca Mountain project is being re-evaluated by the Department of Energy and the USGS to ensure that quality assurance standards have been met. Hevesi agreed to additional interviews with committee staff members and to answer in writing additional questions from the committee.
In the second panel, Mr. John Arthur of the Department of Energy was questioned on the DOE's lack of cooperation with the committee's requests. Chairman Porter suggested that it was in the public's interest that DOE be as cooperative as possible to assuage fears that a cover-up may be going on. Arthur promised that he would speak with Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman about ensuring that all documents were released promptly. Arthur also testified about the work that the DOE was doing to ensure that the science of the Yucca Mountain Project was sound, particularly with regard to Hevesi's contributions to the project. Chairman Porter, however, was still critical of the actions of the DOE with regard to these allegations, and said that further inquiry into the matter will primarily involve investigations into DOE's cooperation.
Mr. Robert Shane Johnson, Acting Director of the Office of Nuclear
Energy, Science, and Technology, Deputy Director for Technology, Department
On June 16th, 2005 the Energy Subcommittee of the House Science Committee heard testimony on the status of nuclear fuel reprocessing technologies in the United States. The hearing comes as the House and Senate complete work on fiscal year (FY) 2006 budget allocations for the Department of Energy (DOE). Recent language in the House Energy and Water Appropriations Bill, written by Energy and Water Subcommittee Chairman David Hobson (R-OH), calls for DOE to develop a nuclear fuel recycling plan along with effective reprocessing technologies by the end of 2007. The hearing specifically focused on the impact nuclear reprocessing technologies may have on energy efficiency, nuclear waste management, and weapons proliferation. Another hearing focused on the economics of reprocessing with testimony from nuclear power industry representatives will be held in the near future.
Subcommittee Chairwoman Judy Biggert (R-IL) opened the hearing by declaring herself a proponent of nuclear power and of a geologic repository at Yucca Mountain, but she stated that current U.S. policy on nuclear waste is inefficient. "The bulk of what we call nuclear 'waste' is actually nuclear 'fuel' that still contains over 90 percent of its original energy content. Does that make any sense? No, but that's our current policy, and it's just plain wasteful," Biggert said in her opening statement.
Dr. Phillip J. Finck of Argonne National Laboratory discussed the options for dispensing of spent nuclear fuel in the United States. The first option, called the "once-through fuel cycle", is the system currently in place in the U.S. In the once-through cycle, spent nuclear fuel is disposed of without undergoing any reprocessing to separate the components of the waste for further use. Spent nuclear fuel is composed of 93% by weight of uranium, 5% fission products, and 2% transuranic elements, including plutonium. Under current U.S. policy, spent nuclear fuel will eventually be disposed of at the planned geologic repository within Yucca Mountain. "This approach is considered safe, provided that suitable repository locations and space can be found," Dr. Finck wrote in his prepared statement. The second option, termed "limited recycling" by Dr. Finck, is currently in use in France, Japan, and the United Kingdom. The process, called PUREX, separates the plutonium and uranium from the waste stream where they are re-used as fuel in a commercial nuclear reactor. However, since the spent plutonium/uranium fuel is not recycled again and the other fission products are not recycled at all, this limited recycling process only results in a 10% reduction in the total volume of produced waste. In addition, there are concerns that an increased supply of concentrated plutonium creates a risk of nuclear proliferation. The third option, termed "full recycle" or the "closed fuel cycle", uses advanced processes, such as UREX+ or "pyroprocessing", to continually recycle and reuse the uranium and transuranics streams from the waste fuel. The recycled uranium can be reused as fuel or disposed of as low-level radioactive waste. The transuranic elements can be used in special "fast reactors" where they are transmuted to byproducts that produce less heat and radioactivity upon disposal. According to Dr. Finck, "these approaches are expected to increase the effective capacity of a geologic repository by a factor of 50 to 100."
Mr. Robert Shane Johnson of the Department of Energy spoke of the leadership that the DOE's Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative has in developing spent nuclear fuel separation and recycling technologies. Johnson said that the DOE "has successfully demonstrated the technical feasibility of advanced, proliferation-resistant fuel cycle technologies." He called for larger-scale demonstrations to show the commercial feasibility of these technologies. Under questioning from Subcommittee Chairwoman Judy Biggert (R-IL), Johnson said that reprocessing research and development is well-integrated among the national laboratories but that the labs "do not have as much industry participation as we could."
Mr. Matthew Bunn of the Kennedy School at Harvard spoke strongly against a quick decision to institute reprocessing in the United States. Bunn testified that he was a proponent of nuclear energy, but that the "future of nuclear energy is best addressed by not reprocessing in the near future". Mr. Bunn argued that reprocessing is more expensive than other options, that it increases proliferation risks, that energy efficiency and waste reduction claims are overestimated, and that it is premature to make a decision to begin reprocessing in the United States. Bunn called for an "end-to-end systems analysis" of advanced nuclear reprocessing technologies, particularly in comparison with "dry cask" storage of spent fuel, which he promoted as a safe, interim storage method while final decisions on Yucca Mountain and advanced reprocessing are being made. Other panel members, along with members of the subcommittee, agreed that a full systems analysis of advanced reprocessing technologies is needed along with continued funding for research and development.
Dr. Roger Hagengruber of the University of New Mexico agreed with Bunn that there is no urgency to begin reprocessing. "The U.S. can take some of the next ten years to evaluate technologies and make a more enduring and prudent decision on reprocessing," Hagengruber said in his prepared testimony. Although Hagengruber's testimony expressed opposition to a quick decision on reprocessing as sought by some in the House, he expressed sympathy with the need for time tables to "keep programs from becoming endless academic exercises." Hagengruber suggested that the DOE should report in 2007 on the most promising technology and evaluate whether the technology is cost-effective and proliferation-resistant. He put a particular emphasis on the importance of creating a proliferation-resistant reprocessing technology, stating that "prudent management requires exclusively pursuing proliferation resistant technologies, developing international agreements that limit the spread of enrichment facilities, and investing in a strong safeguards program."
Rep. Jon Porter (R-NV), Chairman of the House Government Reform Subcommittee on Federal Workforce and Agency Organization, invited the rest of Nevada's House delegation, Jim Gibbons (R-NV) and Shelley Berkley (D-NV), to hear testimony regarding whether federal employees falsified data for the Yucca Mountain project. Nevada's Senate delegation was asked to offer testimony along with officials from the Department of Energy (DOE), the Department of the Interior (DOI), and the State of Nevada.
On March 16, the DOE and DOI disclosed the existence of several emails, dated between 1998 and 2000, that suggest U.S. Geological Survey employees may have manipulated data relating to climate and water infiltration models for the nuclear repository. In the emails, which are posted on the subcommittee's website, employees express frustration with DOE's quality assurance program and allude to manipulating data in order to meet quality assurance requirements. According to an internal DOE memo, "these e-mails may create a substantial vulnerability for the program."
In their opening statements, Reps. Porter and Berkeley read through excerpts from the emails, which they said reflected "nothing short of criminal behavior," and called for the government to abandon the project altogether. Senators Harry Reid (D-NV) and John Ensign (R-NV), along with Nevada's governor and attorney general all demanded the same. "What began as a noble effort has deteriorated into a quagmire of politics where the laws of expediency prevail over the laws of science," said Governor Kenny Guinn, who likened the case to the Enron and WorldCom scandals. Guinn insisted DOE must be deliberately minimizing the implications of the email messages if they continue to deny the State of Nevada access to the evidence. Instead of openness, Guinn said, "what we get from DOE is obfuscating and damage control."
Governor Guinn agreed to Rep. Berkeley's entreaty to secure a second meeting with President Bush to discuss these and other complications of the Yucca Mountain Project. Nevadans intend to hold the President firmly to a statement made in 2002, in which he ensured that his final decision regarding the repository would be based on scientific data and "sound science."
In the second panel of witnesses, agency officials could not speak
substantively about the allegations, due to pending investigations
by the Inspectors General (IG) from DOE and DOI, in partnership with
the FBI. Chairman Porter grilled USGS Director Chip Groat and Ted
Garrish, Director of DOE's Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management,
on steps that are being taken to address any immediate threat to the
project. Groat testified that the individuals involved were no longer
assigned to theYucca Mountain project, but had not been suspended.
"We have not followed [disciplinary] procedures based on our
own investigation because we must wait for the IG reports," Groat
said. DOI's Inspector General, Earl Devaney, confirmed that such an
investigation would be inappropriate and suspending employees at this
time would be premature.
Rep. Berkeley asked whether Groat and Garrish would agree to an additional, independent investigation. Groat replied that he would welcome any such investigation, while Garrish essentially rejected the idea, asking Berkeley who she had in mind, when the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has already been mandated to play that role through their review of the license application.
"The very idea that you are investigating yourself is a joke to me," Berkeley said, adding, "now you have said that the DOE believes in openness; well we've got whistle blowers coming out of the wazoo telling us that there is no such thing as openness at the DOE." In trying to systematically debunk values, such as openness and self-identification, that Garrish set out in his testimony, Berkeley cited testimony of other witnesses who said DOE continued to withhold information from Nevadan officials.
Gibbons continued to shift the focus of blame from the actions of the USGS employees to potential systemic failures within the DOE management. As one email reads, "...[Yucca Mountain Project] has now reached a point where they need to have certain items work no matter what, and the infiltration maps are on that list." Joe Egan, an attorney representing the State of Nevada, told the panelists, "falsification is nothing new to DOE." He cited other incidents in the project, in which DOE falsified documents relating to the toxicity of tunnels under the mountain, exposing workers to toxic silica dust. He also testified that the email disclosure was not voluntary and officials have been aware of the emails since December, 2004.
Sources: Hearing testimony, Environment & Energy Daily.
Contributed by Katie Ackerly, 2005 AGI/AAPG Spring Intern; John Vermylen, 2005 AGI/AIPG Summer Intern; Jenny Fisher, 2006 AGI/AAPG Spring Intern; and Carrie Donnelly, 2006 AGI/AIPG Summer Intern.
Please send any comments or requests for information to AGI Government Affairs Program.
Last updated on August 7, 2006.