White House plan to scratch nuclear waste site plays to mixed reviews

The Obama administration is dumping plans for underground storage of nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain while tripling taxpayer-backed loan guarantees for new reactors.

Following the news Monday that President Barack Obama would eliminate funding by 2011 for the underground repository, the U.S. Department of Energy filed the paperwork Tuesday to withdraw its application for the site, which was being considered by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's Atomic Safety and Licensing Board.

Mired in delays and controversy, the Yucca Mountain project was intended to be a permanent underground site for storage of the highly radioactive spent fuel that is a byproduct of nuclear power. The federal energy department submitted its application for the Nye County, Nev., project on June 3, 2008, according to the NRC.

Obama's directive drew mixed reviews Tuesday from industry insiders and nuclear power opponents, but they did agree that jettisoning the Yucca Mountain project does not relieve the administration of its obligation to provide permanent, final storage for highly radioactive spent fuel.

Obama's stance was no surprise to Dominion of Virginia, the parent company of Dominion Nuclear Connecticut, which owns the Millstone Power Station in Waterford, said Richard Zuercher, a Dominion spokesman.

"Zeroing out the budgeting for Yucca Mountain … does not alleviate the DOE from its responsibility to dispose of used commercial nuclear fuel," Zuercher said.

Anti-nuclear activist Kevin Kamps, a radioactive waste watchdog with the Tacoma Park, Md., group Beyond Nuclear, hailed the decision but said nuclear power needs to be phased out and replaced with renewable energy.

"It represents a 25- or 30-years-in-the-making victory for the environment and environmental justice because of Yucca's dreadfully unsuitable geology, as well as the land belonging to the Western Shoshone Indians by treaty," said Kamps. "But it's nearly 70 years since Enrico Fermi first split the atom in 1942 and we have not yet dealt with that first cupful of radioactive waste."

In reactors, atomic energy is converted to thermal energy, which is used to produce pressurized steam that drives a turbine and generates electricity. The harmful byproduct, spent fuel, is stored at nuclear reactor sites in enormous pools and dry storage bunkers.

The spent fuel also contains excess heat energy that has the potential to be recycled.

Under the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act, the federal government is required to come up with a storage solution so that nuclear reactor owners are not saddled with costs and responsibilities of managing and safeguarding the waste.

Last week, under orders from Obama, Energy Secretary Steven Chu established the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future to conduct a comprehensive review of nuclear waste disposal policies and to recommend alternatives.

Loan guarantees

Obama also has committed up to $54.5 billion to expand support for federal energy department loan guarantees for "a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants" - about $36 billion more than originally allotted.

Kamps and the Union of Concerned Scientists of Cambridge, Mass., criticized that decision, while Dominion and the Washington, D.C.-based Nuclear Energy Institute defended it.

The loan guarantee expansion is "really throwing good money after bad," Kamps said. "It is transferring the financial risks of new atomic reactors onto the backs of taxpayers. Only once that transfer takes place will Wall Street investment banks get involved, so it gives a whole new meaning to the term 'moral hazard.' "

Ellen Vancko, nuclear energy and climate change project manager at UCS, added: "While it may be appropriate to provide loan guarantees to support first-mover reactors, any decision to triple federal loan guarantees could divert critical financial resources from more cost-effective clean energy projects that would come online much more quickly and put Americans back to work right now."

To date, the NRC has received applications for a total of 28 new reactors at 18 different sites, according to Neil Sheehan, a spokesman for the agency. Of those, the companies involved have formally asked to suspend reviews of five applications for six proposed reactors, because of uncertainties over federal loan guarantee money or plans to consider alternate new reactor designs, Sheehan said.

Dominion, which has no plans to add any reactors at Millstone, is choosing from a list of vendors who would build a new, 1,520 megawatt reactor at the North Anna site in central Virginia, Zuercher said. A new reactor could come online by 2019, he said.

"Our view is that loan guarantees are necessary for companies that want to build new nuclear plants," he added. "And the fact that the president supports the increasing of loan guarantees is a good thing."

Nuclear Energy Institute President and Chief Executive Officer Marvin Fertel said in a statement that the loan guarantees would help "accelerate construction of new nuclear plants, creating thousands of high-paying, long-term jobs in the process" and reinvigorating the industry.

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