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October 1, 2014

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Yucca Mountain:

Nevada skipped in talk of nuclear waste storage

Energy nominee sidesteps Yucca project in Hill session

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Energy Secretary nominee Steven Chu managed to get through his Senate confirmation hearing Tuesday while barely mentioning the words Yucca Mountain.

Even though the Energy Department has spent $9 billion and more than 20 years developing the plan for a nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain, when asked by senators about the site, Chu said only that he would use sound science to find a long-term solution to the storage problem.

By sidestepping the issue and pointing to President-elect Barack Obama’s stated opposition to Yucca Mountain, Chu did more than simply avoid a thorny question during a confirmation hearing. He signaled the new direction Obama seems to be taking on the dump: It was as if Yucca Mountain did not exist.

“The Department of Energy has an obligation, a real obligation, to provide a plan that allows for the safe disposal of nuclear waste,” Chu testified. “We do need a plan of how to dispose of that waste safely over a long period of time.”

Nevertheless, the Nobel physicist said nuclear energy is necessary as the nation confronts climate change. It satisfies 20 percent of the nation’s energy needs — and constitutes 70 percent of its carbon-free energy, he reminded the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

The next point public officials usually make in conversations of this kind is that nuclear recycling will provide a way out of the waste conundrum. Many lawmakers in Nevada say they favor nuclear power if the waste can be reused rather than dumped.

Chu, however, seemed unconvinced that reprocessing nuclear waste is a sound choice, describing existing technology as “not ideal.” He echoed concerns in the scientific community that nuclear waste stockpiled for recycling could fall into enemy hands, and that reprocessing used fuel now costs more than mining for fresh uranium.

“The idea here, now, is to do it in a way that makes it more proliferation-resistant and there’s economic feasibility,” he said.

Chu told the senators that waste storage is an issue that would “occupy a significant amount of my time and energy.”

He said that in many ways the nuclear dilemma is similar to the quest for clean coal: More coal and nuclear plants should be brought on line even as new technologies are being developed – to capture carbon in the case of coal or resolve the waste issue with nuclear energy.

“It doesn’t mean you stop everything today,” he said.

Perhaps one clue to his approach in resolving the waste issue can be seen in his views on the politically difficult task of choosing routes for new energy transmission lines. Communities have protested the so-called electricity superhighways proposed for their neighborhoods.

“How do you site these in a way that takes into consideration the local feelings?” Chu said.

When one senator asked whether the federal government should be given more authority to decide where the transmission lines belong, Chu suggested the government instead “try a gentler approach.”

When one senator asked whether the federal government should be given more authority to decide where the transmission lines belong, Chu suggested the government instead “try a gentler approach.”

Chu’s comments seemed light years from those of Energy Department officials who forced Yucca Mountain on Nevada over the years. “If one just expands the authority and gives more power, my feeling is the states, and the local people in the states, might react,” Chu said.

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