GAO predicts Hanford costs will rise if Yucca is closed

By Annette Cary, Herald staff writerMay 6, 2011 

RICHLAND — The shutdown of the Yucca Mountain nuclear repository likely would increase costs long term at Hanford, possibly substantially, according to the Government Accountability Office.

However, the report to Congressional leaders released Thursday raised more questions than it answered.

It looked at the impacts of DOE's move to terminate the Nevada repository on Hanford and five other Department of Energy sites with used nuclear fuel or high-level radioactive waste that had been expected to be shipped to Yucca Mountain.

But it found that future plans for the fuel and waste -- including when plans would be implemented -- were so uncertain that increased costs are difficult to project.

However, the report indicated they could be large. Under one estimate, costs nationwide for extending on-site storage for two decades could require $918 million.

Among the needs at Hanford could be construction of three additional storage facilities, at an estimated cost of $100 million each, to hold high-level radioactive waste once it is treated at the vitrification plant that is under construction.

The plant is expected to begin producing canisters of vitrified, or glassified, high-level waste in 2019, just before Yucca Mountain was expected to open. DOE projects it will produce about 9,700 of the canisters that had been expected to be sent to Yucca Mountain.

The three buildings would be built as needed, under the GAO report scenario. Hanford officials are in the early stages of considering different types of storage structures for the glassified waste.

In addition, storing 2,300 tons of irradiated Hanford fuel expected to be sent to Yucca would cost $6 million per year, the report estimated. With DOE projecting that Yucca Mountain could open in 2020 and the GAO report speculating the opening of a permanent repository could be delayed until 2040, the cost of storing the Hanford fuel could be $120 million.

Earlier this week, the Energy Communities Alliance, which includes local governments near Hanford, sent a letter to Energy Secretary Steven Chu raising concerns that the increased costs of securing and storing waste and fuel at Hanford and other sites would be paid for with environmental cleanup money, reducing the amount available to do work.

DOE, in a letter to the GAO, disagreed that there likely would be a delay and increased costs because of DOE's decision to shut down the Yucca Mountain repository.

"There was no 'certain' date for opening the Yucca Mountain repository, and any opening was always subject to contingencies beyond DOE's control," said Ines Triay, DOE assistant secretary for environmental management.

"By the same token, the report disregards the fact that the Blue Ribbon Commission is considering these matters and could propose options that will lead to more rapid disposal of waste than the Yucca Mountain approach," she said in the letter.

The GAO was not swayed.

It pointed out that the Blue Ribbon Commission, which is researching alternatives to Yucca Mountain, may not provide recommendations on a new direction for nuclear waste management until January. Clear national policy might not be available until several years after that, the report said.

"For decades the United States has been struggling with the issue of what to do with the nuclear waste from weapons production and several other sources," the GAO report said. "With the possible termination of the Yucca Mountain repository, it may be about to restart this potentially time-consuming and contentious process."

In addition to considering storage at Hanford and other sites for two decades, the report also considered the possibility of building new storage facilities for very long-term storage, such as beyond 120 years. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is planning to research the technical issues for storing commercial used nuclear fuel, which also was planned to go to Yucca Mountain, for longer than 120 years.

DOE officials are reluctant to invest in costly new storage facilities that could last hundreds of years, only to discover that storage is not needed that long, the report said. In addition, some states and communities with DOE nuclear sites "may oppose any signs that DOE is planning long-term storage at the sites," the report said.

DOE is storing used fuel or high- level waste in Idaho, Colorado, New York and South Carolina, in addition to Hanford.

While DOE has no legal deadline for moving fuel or vitrified waste off Hanford, DOE does face legal deadlines of 2035 in Idaho and Colorado. The federal government could be liable to pay Idaho $60,000 a day for each day past Jan. 1, 2035, that fuel planned to be sent to Yucca Mountain remains at Idaho. With a potential Colorado fine added, the annual penalty could come to $27.4 million a year, the GAO report said.

In addition, Idaho could refuse to accept Navy shipments of spent nuclear fuel past 2035 if fuel already in Idaho remains. The Navy does not have an alternate site for the fuel.

Being unable to ship to Idaho would leave it unable to refuel its nuclear warships and raise national security concerns, the GAO report said.

DOE said it intends to meet its commitment to remove used nuclear fuel from Idaho and Colorado by 2035.

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