DOE Takes a New Look at the Mina Rail Route
According to agency officials, the Department of Energy (DOE) is considering a new rail route for the transportation of nuclear waste to the proposed Yucca Mountain repository. DOE had earlier designated a different route – the Caliente corridor – as its preferred rail alternative.
According to Bob Halstead, transportation consultant for the state of Nevada, the mountainous terrain of the Caliente corridor would make a railroad difficult and costly to build. The Mina corridor, however, largely crosses through valleys. “Given what we know about terrain, land use ownership and land use conflicts, if the Walker River Paiute Tribe allows [DOE] to transverse the reservation, then this route would certainly appear to be less difficult than Caliente.” According to Halstead, the “bottom line is that [DOE] could save a billion dollars.”
However, while more inexpensive to construct, the Mina route would lead to trains crossing through a larger portion of Nevada. Nuclear waste shipped by rail from the eastern states would cut through Eureka County on the Union Pacific Railroad tracks that run through the northern part of the county. Trains carrying nuclear waste may also come within a close vicinity of Reno and communities in fast growing Lyon and Churchill counties.
The proposed route would include a new rail line on the outskirts of Paiute reservation land north of Walker Lake which would bypass the community of Schurz.
According to DOE representative Allen Benson, the Paiutes informed DOE in a letter on May 4th that they no longer oppose the study of a possible nuclear waste rail corridor through their reservation lands. In June, Benson told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that “we are considering the new information provided by the tribe and are analyzing our options. There have been some meetings with the tribe.”
The May 4th letter from the Paiutes stated, “We understand that if rail shipments are not allowed, nuclear waste may still be shipped through the reservation by truck.” The letter continued, “Our intent in allowing [an environmental impact study] is to determine if shipments on the railroad would be less dangerous than shipments by truck through Schurz.”
However, while the tribe will allow DOE to investigate the Mina route, the Paiutes will not sign off on the construction of a rail line there unless they are convinced of its safety. According to tribal Chairwoman Genia Williams, “Safety is the motivating factor of our decision.” Williams also said, “Let me make it clear that we have not said yes to the route through our reservation until we fully evaluate comprehensive studies on a new rail route that would be constructed miles away from our main population center.”
The department is currently updating data it collected on existing rail alignments 20 years ago in order to decide whether the Mina corridor is worth further investigation. DOE must also review the status of mining claims and land use ownership in the area.
DOE is in the process of determining whether the Caliente environmental impact statement study underway can legally be expanded to also include the Mina corridor. The department hopes to have a decision on whether to go forward with studies on the Mina route by the end of the summer.
Gary Lanthrum, transportation director for the Yucca Mountain project, spoke about the revived rail option at a recent meeting of the U.S. Transportation Council. DOE is looking at “some of the aspects of alignments along the route to see if they are feasible,” Lanthrum said. “Once a determination is made, we will figure out how to go forward.”
An analysis of the Mina option could add between eight months to a year onto the current rail corridor study, which has already experienced delays.
DOE Updates Yucca Mountain Project Timeline — 2017 New Opening Date
The Department of Energy (DOE) has set a new target date for the opening of the proposed Yucca Mountain repository. According to a July 18 announcement, Yucca Mountain will be ready to start accepting shipments of nuclear waste in March of 2017. This is the first timeline DOE has set for the repository since it abandoned its previous deadline of 2010 two years ago.
President Requests Money for Nuclear Waste Recycling
The Bush administration has proposed an initiative aimed at expanding the use of nuclear power both in the United States and abroad. Called the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, or GNEP, the initiative envisions cooperation among the United States and other nations to develop and perfect the technology needed to reprocess spent nuclear fuel. The budget proposed by the administration this year contains $250 million to initiate the partnership.
The United States had previously pursued reprocessing as a solution to the problem of nuclear waste, but abandoned the technology in the 1970s. At that time reprocessing technologies recycled nuclear waste into reusable fuel, but also created plutonium as a byproduct. Because plutonium can be used to build nuclear weapons, reprocessing was seen as a security threat. President Carter banned the technology in 1977 due to proliferation concerns. The ban on reprocessing was lifted by President Reagan in 1981, but due the cost and technological complexity of the process, no company in the United States has since tried to develop it.
The GNEP initiative is intended to spur the development of new technology that would reduce the volume of spent nuclear fuel without creating dangerous, weapons-grade by-products. Under GNEP, nuclear nations such as Russia, France, and Great Britain would work together to develop this new technology.
According to the proposal, nuclear reactors would be sold to smaller nations. The fuel for these reactors would be leased to the small countries and then taken back by GNEP’s participant nations for reprocessing and disposal.
The initiative would result in a greater reliance on nuclear power in both the United States and other countries trying to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels. According the Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman, GNEP would lead to reduced consumption of oil and emissions of hydrocarbon, and an increased use of nuclear power, “making the world a better, cleaner, and safer place to live.”
DOE officials contend that reprocessing would reduce the volume and toxicity of spent nuclear fuel, perhaps negating the need for further repositories in the United States. The reprocessing would still create radioactive byproducts, however, which would eventually be buried at a repository.
It is possible that some of the waste generated by the proposed international partnership could eventually make its way to the Yucca Mountain repository. “It is dependent on a number of things, the development of the technology, international agreements, and other things,” DOE Deputy Secretary Clay Sell told reporters in February. “It is certainly possible that [the waste] could stay in a country where it is recycled and burned down, but it is also possible that it could go back to the user nation as well.”
The $250 million requested for GNEP was recently approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee. A similar bill passed by the House in May cut GNEP spending to $120 million. The two bills will be reconciled in a conference committee later this year.
Sources: Las Vegas Review Journal 2/7/06, 6/30/06, Washington Post 2/19/06
Senate Confirms New Director for Yucca Mountain Project
Sources: Las Vegas Sun 9/9/05, 11/10/05, 5/26/06; & Nuclear Engineering International 9/14/05
“Fix Yucca” Legislation Aims to Speed Repository Project
Key Provisions of the 2006 Nuclear Fuel Management and Disposal Act
If passed, the Nuclear Fuel Management and Disposal Act would
The bill contains many provisions sought by proponents of the Yucca Mountain Project such as the nuclear power industry. For example, the bill seeks to change the limit on the capacity of the repository. Under current law, the amount of waste stored at the proposed facility cannot exceed 70,000 metric tons. If passed, the bill would raise the legal capacity of the repository to 120,000 metric tons of nuclear waste.
Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman explained the need to change the 70,000 ton limit in a letter to Congress that accompanied the bill. “Repeal of the limit would postpone indefinitely the need for the department to begin a second repository siting and development effort,” he said. With nearly 55,000 tons of spent fuel currently being stored onsite in nuclear power plants, it is possible that additional waste repositories would be needed in the foreseeable future if the limit on Yucca Mountain is not lifted.
The bill would also authorize DOE to begin building a rail line to transport nuclear waste before the agency obtains a license from the NRC to build the repository. However, despite numerous provisions that could speed up the project, the bill does not address key elements that may be necessary to move the project along.
The bill does not authorize temporary storage for nuclear waste while the repository is being built (see section below for more information). It also fails to address the issue of nuclear waste recycling, a favorite issue of Senator Pete Domenici (R-New Mexico). Domenici is chairman of the Senate committee on energy and natural resources, where the bill is currently stalled.
Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman talked about the bill during his tour of the Yucca Mountain facility in April. “The legislation will allow us to provide stability, provide clarity, as well as predictability to the Yucca Mountain Project,” he said. Bodman also commented that the bill would “help lay a solid foundation for America’s future energy security.” Representative Joe Barton (R-Texas) indicted in July that the House may consider a similar bill during a lame duck session later this year.
Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman commented
on pending legislation following his tour of the
Yucca Mountain facility in April.
Have You Heard
Radiation Standard for Yucca Mountain Expected by End of This Year…. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) expects to finalize a radiation standard by the end of 2006, according to an agency representative.
Criminal Charges Will Not be Filed in Yucca Mountain Email Scandal ….. Investigators have failed to turn up conclusive evidence of criminal actions in Yucca Mountain emails that implied quality assurance documents might have been falsified, according to a report released in May. However, the report does state that management shortcomings on the nuclear waste project allowed a “poor attitude” to fester among the employees involved in the scandal. DOE had concluded that while the work completed by the employees in question was technically sound, it was not suitable to be used in the agency’s application for a license to build a repository. (Las Vegas Review-Journal, 5/5/06)
Energy Secretary Tours Yucca ….... Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman toured the Yucca Mountain facility in April, emerging impressed with the exploratory effort and research at the site. Bodman spoke positively of the quantity and quality of the work that had been completed on the project. He added, “The question, however, remains: is it certain enough and is it quality enough?” (Las Vegas Review-Journal, 4/14/06)
Court Rejects Nevada Yucca Mountain Apeal …… A federal appeals court turned aside Nevada’s arguments against Yucca Mountain transportation plans. The state argued that DOE violated environmental rules in waste shipment decision making. The state also raised technical objections to the selection of the Caliente Corridor as the preferred rail route. The judges concluded, “that some of Nevada’s claims are unripe for review and the remaining claims are without merit.” Energy Department officials welcomed the decision. Joe Egan, an Attorney for Nevada, said the state was considering whether to ask for a re-hearing. (Las Vegas Sun, 8/8/06)
Nuclear Waste Update