Utilities Watch

The issues surrounding storage of high-level nuclear waste remain unsettled amid reports of falsified studies concerning the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada, development of a possible temporary storage site in Utah and federal legislation that would authorize long-term storage at nuclear plants around the country.

All these developments come as efforts are under way at the federal level that could provide incentives for more development of nuclear power plants.

The Deseret Morning News reported recently on claims that federal scientific studies about the possibility of water seeping into the repository at Yucca Mountain were falsified. If true, these claims could cause further delays and other problems at Yucca Mountain, where the nation’s spent nuclear fuel rods were scheduled to be permanently stored as early as 2010.

Efforts have focused for decades on developing an underground tunnel repository at the Yucca site 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

While Yucca continues to be scrutinized, the permitting process has been accelerating for a “temporary” storage facility for the same high-level radioactive waste in Utah’s Skull Valley.

Skull Valley, an Indian reservation in Utah’s west desert, 45 miles southwest of Salt Lake City, would be built by Private Fuel Storage LLC, a consortium of nuclear power generators for temporarily storing 40,000 tons of waste.

PFS has been pushing its storage plan since 1997; the Nuclear Regulatory Commission might decide soon whether to grant final approval.

Meanwhile, in Washington, Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman issued a written statement regarding the claims of falsification in reports: “I am greatly disturbed by the possibility that any of the work related to the Yucca Mountain project may have been falsified.”

Chip Groat, director of the U.S. Geological Survey, said that e-mails by USGS employees raised serious questions about the review process of scientific studies conducted six years ago at the site.

Employees are alleged “to have committed improprieties after moving into the quality assurance phase” needed for the U.S. Department of Energy’s licensing process, says a DOE press release.

A DOE release cited in the Deseret Morning News report said the documentation in question relates to computer modeling involving water infiltration.

In a formal statement, Bodman said that, during the document review process, “DOE contractors discovered multiple e-mails written between May 1998 and March 2000 in which a USGS employee indicated that he had fabricated documentation of his work.”

The DOE has started checking the data in the study and the documentation that was used. If any work is found deficient, “it will be replaced or supplemented with analysis and documentation that meets appropriate quality assurance standards,” he added.

The matter has been referred to the Interior Department’s inspector general.

Yucca Mountain repository opponent Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., is reportedly looking to inject new life into a perennial proposal that would keep nuclear waste stored at power plants rather than sent for burial in Yucca Mountain. Reid is preparing a bill that would require the Department of Energy to take ownership of radioactive spent fuel and build on-site containers to store the material at reactor sites. If approved, this proposal would represent a fundamental shift in how the government manages the nation’s nuclear waste.

Reid’s bill would redirect the $16.3 billion balance in the Yucca Mountain construction fund to build more “dry cask” storage facilities at reactor sites to hold radioactive spent fuel.

Utilities, which store spent fuel in cooling pools, say they are running out of room. The nuclear industry’s trade association says reactor sites were not intended as storehouses, and on-site waste storage is only an interim measure until waste can be moved to a permanent repository.

Doug Patch, former chairman of the New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission, is with the Concord law firm of Orr and Reno.

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