Monday, August 19, 2013

Yucca Mountain Spotted Fever #4

I've been writing off and on about some of the developments at Yucca Mountain over the past few years.  While the average citizen probably doesn't know much or care much about it, it is still a $15 billion+ program that gets fewer headlines in the mainstream press than it probably should.

I had a good summary of the state of things in late 2010 in my Yucca Mountain Spotted Fever #2 post.  To summarize:
  • Way back in the 1980's, Congress said, "Thou shalt bury nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain."  The US Department of Energy was tasked with making it happen, including getting approval from the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
  • The US Department of Energy said, "Eh, this Yucca Mountain thing is too thorny; we can't continue with it."
  • The NRC said, "Uh-oh, DOE is giving up.  Hey, group of smart folks here at the NRC, what should we do?"
  • The Smart Folks said, "You have no statutory ability to give up.  Congress has directed; you must follow."
  • The NRC said, "Ummmm ..... we'll get back to you."

And that's about where it has stayed for the past two years.  Then-Chairman of the NRC, Gregory Jaczko, was in no hurry to continue the analysis, presumably due to his ties to Senator Harry Reid, who has stated his vociferous objections to completing Yucca Mountain in his home state of Nevada.  (Quoth the Senator: "I am proud that after two decades of fighting the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump, the project has finally been terminated.")

So, the "smart guys" told the NRC to GET ON WITH IT, but the NRC kept dragging its feet.  Some members of Congress wrote sharply crafted letters to goad the NRC into action.  An important point to make here, though, is that no additional funding has been provided by Congress to complete the review.  The NRC has about $11 million to finish the review, which -- while a lot of money to you and me -- is a pittance to the NRC.  Every hour of every person working at the NRC is charged out at something like $276 per hour.  Novice, experienced, subject matter expert ... they're all $276 per hour.  For the record, my charge out rate is $178 dollars per hour, and I'm paid comfortably in an organization with more overhead than I care to admit.

Well, the DC Circuit Court of Appeals issued its ruling last week: The NRC does not have the power to stop reviewing the Yucca Mountain project.  "As things stand, therefore, the Commission is simply flouting the law."  Another judge on the court noted that "former NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko, who has since resigned, orchestrated a systematic campaign of noncompliance."

The Wall Street Journal then added, "If Mr. Jaczko worked on Wall Street he'd be indicted."

And so the NRC must continue down its path of evaluating the DOE's application to certify Yucca Mountain as the single geologic repository for nuclear waste, although everyone knows that the remaining $11 million is not enough to complete the review and Congress has little incentive to continue to fund it.

I feel sorry for two groups of people: the electric customers in this country who have been dutifully paying the 0.1 cent per megawatt-hour fee (which Congress continues to collect) and received nothing but waste in return, and the handful of NRC engineers and reviewers who must review the application with the knowledge that it's basically dead on arrival and their work will be forever shelved.