US plans for mountain nuclear waste dump shelved

Long running plans to turn a Nevada mountain into America's nuclear waste dump are set to be controversially scrapped by President Barack Obama.

Funding for Yucca Mountain will be stopped if the president’s 2010 Budget gets the green light US energy secretary Steven Chu told a Washington senate budget committee hearing last Thursday.

He declared the “budget begins to eliminate funding for Yucca Mountain as a repository for our nation’s nuclear waste” adding: “Both the President and I have made clear that Yucca Mountain is not a workable option and that we will begin a thoughtful dialogue on a better solution for our nuclear waste storage needs.”

He revealed the department will establish a “blue ribbon” panel to draw up a plan this year to deal with the disposal of radioactive waste from nuclear power plants, while offering reassurances nuclear power remains an important part of energy plans.

“I believe nuclear power is an essential part of our energy mix,” he said. “It provides the clean base load generation of electricity.”

But lawmakers questioned if new nuclear plants could be licensed before a permanent plan for waste disposal is developed.

Mr Chu told them he believed the Nuclear Regulatory Commission would not delay licensing for as interim storage options are available.

Nuclear waste is currently stored at 121 temporary sites in 39 states.

Studies on using Yucca Mountain, some 80 miles north west of Las Vegas, as the nation’s first long term facility for spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste began in the late 1970s.

Since 1987 it has been the proposed site.

The Department of Energy had been set to accept nuclear waste at Yucca by 1998 but this was delayed due to legal challenges, transport concerns and political pressures slowing construction.

As much as $13.5 billion (£9.5 billion) is estimated to have been spent on the Yucca project, which has fuelled more than two decades of environmental debate between opponents and supporters.

It is understood the facility would still be years from opening even if it went ahead.

Some have questioned the wisdom of scrapping it, querying if the Obama administration can see fully the environmental benefits and energy independence of the next generation of nuclear power. Others worry about its potential effect on nuclear developers.

Senator Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska republican, said: “We’ve spent billions of dollars and many years preparing for Yucca Mountain to be our nation’s waste site.

“Closing Yucca Mountain sends an unmistakable signal to nuclear developers that they might not have a place to store their waste, making them less willing to develop new facilities.”

In his statement to the committee, Mr Chu heralded the 2010 budget saying it will “continue this transformation to a clean energy economy, while returning to fiscal responsibility”.

David Gibbs

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