A cascading series of problems — quality control, litigation, and cost overruns among them — has delayed the opening of a viable repository for high-level nuclear waste until at least 2020, but it’s still not clear the project will ever be successfully completed. The inability to find such a permanent site has left growing amounts of spent fuel and other high-level radioactive waste at 121 sites nationwide. The roots of the issue date back to 1982, when passage of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act created the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management (OCRWM) within the Department of Energy (DOE). That office was charged with overseeing construction of a national repository for radioactive waste by the year 1998. When President Bush took office in 2001, the most viable, if controversial site, Nevada’s Yucca Mountain, was still years away from operational status. But matters have only grown worse. By failing to use the fees long-imposed on nuclear plants to finance a facility, the government has faced dozens of breach-of-contract lawsuits from industry; many of those cases are still pending, but the government has already paid out millions of dollars in court awards or settlements. Congress approved the Yucca site in 2002, but the DOE repeatedly failed to meet its goal to complete the next step of submitting a license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). The DOE has faced vigorous opposition from the state of Nevada as well as some members of Congress who control the program’s purse strings, but the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that chronic quality assurance problems have also plagued the effort. In 2005, the disclosure of e-mails from geologists indicated that environmental documents may have been falsified, forcing the DOE to spend millions re-analyzing the science behind the project. Further slowing progress, the U.S. Court of Appeals found fault with an Environmental Protection Agency decision to plan “only” for 10,000 years of regulatory compliance at Yucca Mountain. It took until October 2005 for the DOE to enact a “New Path Forward” on how the project would proceed. A new OCRWM director was able to meet a revised goal of June 30, 2008, for submitting the license application to the NRC. DOE officials recently told Congress that under a best-case scenario, costs for the Yucca Mountain repository would reach $90 billion — $19 billion above its 2007 estimate and $33 billion more than the administration estimated in 2001. The site, moreover, would not open until 2020 at the earliest. But concerns about everything from transporting the waste to Yucca’s ability to store it safely could yet derail the project altogether — leaving America without a central repository for growing amounts of high-level nuclear waste that will remain deadly for thousands of years. The OCRWM press office did not respond to a request for comment, but Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman said in a September statement, “I am confident the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s rigorous review process will validate that the Yucca Mountain repository will safely store this waste in a manner that is most protective of human health and the environment.” OCRWM’s director referred the Senate to a National Academies finding that shipping spent fuel is thousands of times less risky than shipping other common hazardous material.
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