Geotimes Logo POLITICAL SCENE July 1997

Yucca Mountain: No Light at Tunnel's End?

On April 25, the Department of Energy (DOE) achieved a major milestone for its Yucca Mountain Site Characterization Project, completing a five- mile tunnel through the Nevada mountain that is the sole site under consideration to serve as a permanent geologic repository for the nation's high-level nuclear waste.

For nearly three years, a giant tunnel boring machine (TBM) had been grinding away at the mountain's volcanic rocks. Following a horseshoe- shaped path, the machine emerged on the same side of the mountain as it had entered. Although fully intentional, this outcome seems an apt metaphor for the project, which after many years still faces congressional calls for an overhaul, fervent opposition from Nevada and many others, seemingly unsurmountable regulatory hurdles, and the looming threat of lawsuits. It appears unlikely that this engineering breakthrough will be followed by political breakthroughs any time soon.

World's Largest Paperweight

The controversy surrounding the newly completed tunnel and the machine that made it typify the cost and credibility problems plaguing the project. According to DOE press materials, the tunnel was built to house an Exploratory Studies Facility that "serves as an underground laboratory ... to gather data needed to determine if Yucca Mountain will be a suitable site" for nuclear waste disposal. Despite the exploratory nature of the tunnel, however, DOE decided that existing 18- foot-diameter tunneling machines were inadequate. Instead, the project custom-built one of the world's largest TBM's at considerably greater expense.

Having completed its mission, this 25-foot- diameter, 720-ton behemoth is to be sold as government surplus. Until a buyer can be found, the TBM is now what one Energy Department official jokingly referred to as "the world's largest paperweight," suitable for holding down the tremendous volume of documents that the site- characterization project has generated.

Why should a facility for scientific studies require such a large tunnel? The answer, known all along, is that if the tests conducted in this exploratory facility prove Yucca Mountain a suitable site, then this same tunnel would be the main tunnel for the actual repository -- the tunnel through which up to 70,000 metric tons of commercial spent-fuel rods and high-level defense wastes would travel for entombment.

When might that entombment begin? Under DOE's current plan, an assessment of the site is to be completed in late 1998. A recommendation to the president on site suitability should follow in 2001 and, regulators willing, actual emplacement of waste begin in 2010. This time line has slipped significantly from the original opening date of 1998 mandated in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982. Although geologic disposal of nuclear waste has been under consideration since the 1950s, the current program was initiated by the 1982 act and subsequent 1987 amendments that designated Yucca Mountain as the only site to be studied.

Legislating a Solution

Many in Congress, bolstered by loud complaints from nuclear utility companies, are not satisfied with DOE's time line, and legislation has been introduced in both this session and the last to overhaul the nation's policy for high-level nuclear waste disposal. The utilities are particularly concerned that DOE open an interim storage facility to relieve them from providing on-site storage of spent fuel. A number of states, led by Idaho, are equally eager to remove high- level defense wastes from DOE facilities within their borders.

Among many changes to current law, the new legislation would establish a surface facility adjacent to Yucca Mountain for interim storage. Siting such a facility in Nevada was prohibited in the 1987 bill as a concession for making Yucca Mountain the designated site. Now even that fig leaf would be removed, prompting a veto threat from the administration.

In both this Congress and the last, the Senate has passed legislation after breaking filibusters by Nevada's senators. But the final margin of victory in both cases, while substantial, was several votes shy of the two-thirds "supermajority" needed to overcome a promised presidential veto. When the measure failed to achieve the necessary 67 votes last fall, the House did not even take up its version of the bill.

This year's version, S. 104, passed the Senate in mid-April by a 65-34 vote, and the House Commerce Committee will consider companion legislation (H.R. 1270) in June. Both sides anticipate a House-Senate conference later this year to develop a compromise bill.

By that time, bill supporters hope that the administration will sign on. But for a president known for adjusting his position in response to changing political winds, Clinton so far has been unwavering on this issue. The administration argues that siting an interim facility at Yucca Mountain before a site suitability determination has been completed would pre-judge the decision on the permanent repository. This position may seem somewhat remarkable coming from the same administration that authorized the construction of the 25-foot-diameter "exploratory" tunnel, but such are the contradictions that riddle this project.

Obstacles Ahead

Even assuming that Congress and the administration can reach a compromise solution, the project still faces a number of political, regulatory, and eventually judicial obstacles that may dwarf the legislative ones. In considering the challenges ahead for Yucca Mountain, the fate of another DOE tunneling project may be relevant.

Below the Texas plain near the town of Waxahachie lie the incomplete remains of what was to be a 54-mile tunnel housing the Superconducting Supercollider. DOE's most ambitious physics project ever, it was cancelled by Congress due to cost overruns and the perception that it lacked a compelling justification in the aftermath of the Cold War.

The Yucca Mountain project has already cost $6 billion with an additional $300 million appropriated each year for the foreseeable future. DOE is again spending far more and taking far longer than originally planned.

In terms of a compelling justification, Yucca Mountain's greatest selling point -- its remote location -- is being questioned as critics shift their focus from potential scientific problems at the site to the issue of transportation. In the wake of DOE's decision to privatize most of the transportation of the waste, critics have voiced a variety of safety concerns. Raising the specter of nuclear waste shipments passing by people's bedrooms in the dark of night, they have created an image more powerful than that of an isolated desert repository at the edge of the Nevada Test Site. Long-term storage in concrete casks at nuclear power plants is being touted as a safer alternative.

With ever-increasing costs and never-ending perception problems, the Yucca Mountain project faces tremendous odds. Having completed their tunnel and emerged at the surface, project managers may find themselves overcome by the urge to turn around and head back inside.

David Applegate
Director of Government Affairs
American Geological Institute

For more information on this and other science policy issues, visit the AGI Government Affairs home page.

The column has been revised, removing comparisons made to the English Channel Tunnel, to reflect an erratum appearing in the September 1997 issue of Geotimes. Posted: 7-12-97.

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