The Department of Energy decided to shut down the Yucca Mountain repository for policy reasons, not technical or safety reasons, according to a Government Accountability Office report to Congress.
The report, released Tuesday, concluded that DOE had not fully complied with all regulations in its hasty shutdown of the project and also looked at the affects of the shutdown.
DOE strongly disagreed with much of the report in a 14-page letter to the GAO.
Hanford officials had planned to send 2,300 tons of irradiated fuel plus high-level waste treated at the Hanford vitrification plant to Yucca Mountain. In addition, the nation's used commercial nuclear power fuel had been planned to go to there.
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Now a Blue Ribbon Commission is researching alternatives to Yucca Mountain. That could include reprocessing spent nuclear fuel, but there would still be high-level waste residues from the process, plus weapons waste from Hanford and other sites, that would need to be disposed of, the report said.
After speaking with DOE officials and considering documents in the public record, the GAO report cited the DOE explanation for the shutdown in a document submitted in legal proceedings.
Energy Secretary Steven Chu's "judgment is not that Yucca Mountain is unsafe or that there are flaws in the license application, but rather that it is not a workable option and that alternatives will better serve the public interest," DOE said in a filing with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's Atomic Safety and Licensing Board.
Shutting down the project allows DOE to seek new approaches to nuclear waste management that could be more widely accepted by the public, particularly since Yucca Mountain had little support from the state of Nevada, the report said.
"However, termination would also restart the costly and time-consuming process of finding a permanent disposal repository or some other solution for spent nuclear fuel and could take decades and billions of additional dollars," the report said.
It put spending at almost $15 billion between the start of work to pick a repository site in 1983 through submitting a license application to the NRC for Yucca Mountain.
DOE already has spent about $9 billion from a money collected from utilities while nuclear power plants are operating. It's possible the fund won't have enough money now to license, build and operate a repository, the GAO report said.
Shutting down the Yucca Mountain project also may have further damaged DOE's credibility, according to the report. DOE's credibility has been a long-term problem, with questions raised about whether its site selection guidelines were superficial, and then delays in the Yucca Mountain project, the report said.
"A final impact of terminating Yucca Mountain is that communities may be even less willing to host spent nuclear fuel repositories or other storage sites in the future," the report said.
DOE has taken steps that make the shutdown difficult to reverse, the report said.
"Amid uncertainty over whether it had the authority to terminate the Yucca Mountain repository program, DOE terminated the program without formally assessing the risks stemming from the shutdown, including the possibility that it might have to resume the repository effort," the report said.
The state of Washington and three Tri-City business leaders are among those who have sued in federal court, challenging whether DOE had the legal authority to end the project.
DOE staff working on the highly technical project have dispersed, and DOE did not tap them for lessons learned that could be helpful for future efforts, the report said.
DOE also did not do an inventory of property before it closed out the project, even though it knew storage sites at remote locations had been broken into and items possibly stolen, the report said.
Starting in 2009, DOE declared excess property and equipment abandoned as the easiest way to close the project down as the budget for it dropped dramatically, although a General Services Administration official said that procedure was unusual for such a large variety and volume of property. That saved DOE time and money, but DOE's documentation was limited, according to DOE officials.
Hanford benefited, receiving 80 truckloads of office furniture and equipment that would have cost the site $2.1 million. In addition Nye County, Nev., was given $400,000 in firefighting equipment.
The report recommended that DOE assess the risks stemming from the rapid shutdown of Yucca Mountain and develop a preliminary plan to restart the project in case DOE is required to do so. DOE also should give Congress an inventory of property from the program, including its value, where it went and any money collected.
DOE disagreed with the recommendations, saying it had already assessed risks and that an inventory had been completed, but the GAO report said neither was adequate.
"The actions DOE took would appear to be insufficient in light of the facts," the report said.
DOE said the report appeared to accept on faith statements by officials who were either ill informed or had financial or other reason to disagree with DOE.
-- Annette Cary: 509-582-1533; firstname.lastname@example.org