Hearings and Business Meetings

SD-366 Energy Committee Hearing Room 10:30 AM

Senator Pete V. Domenici


On The
Department of Energy's
Yucca Mountain Project

May 16, 2005

The Committee shall come to order. 

The purpose of this hearing is to evaluate the progress of the Department of Energy=s Yucca Mountain program and get a better overall sense of where the project is today.

I would dare say that it is no secret to anyone in Washington that I am a zealous proponent of expanding our nation’s nuclear power generation.  Currently, we derive 20% of electricity from nuclear power.  But in this age of concern over our nation’s energy security and worry about destructive results of climate change, we ought to be promoting more and more development of this limitless domestic source of energy that produces no air emissions.

But as we do that, we also need to get on with a plan for the spent fuel.  Each year, American commercial reactors continue to produce 2,000 more metric tons of spent fuel.  Right now, more than 55,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste is now stored at more than 121 sites in 39 states.  These reactors sit rather quietly and produce clean, emission free electricity – Americans get the benefit of clean air and can always depend on the lights coming on in their homes.   

Beyond the need to maintain a high standard of living for Americans and a robust economy that is largely energy driven, we must consider the national security element that is also related to this spent fuel project. 

It is important to keep in mind that forty percent of our nation’s warships are powered by nuclear fuel, which eventually becomes spent fuel and needs to be disposed of in Yucca Mountain.   

Additionally, final disposition is also needed for the spent fuel from the foreign research reactor programs.  Under these research programs, the United States provided nuclear fuel for foreign research reactor programs with the requirement that participating countries must return the fuel to the United States for disposition.   Repatriating this spent nuclear fuel to the United States is essential to prevent the proliferation of nuclear materials around the world.

The Yucca Mountain project has a long pedigree, starting back to the late 1950’s when the National Academy of Sciences reported to the Atomic Energy Commission suggesting that burying radioactive high-level waste in geologic formations should receive consideration.

The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 established a system for selecting a geologic repository for the permanent disposal of up to 70,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste.  The Department of Energy shortly thereafter entered into contracts with utilities that owned nuclear reactors with the expectation to begin taking spent nuclear fuel by 1998.

However, it wasn’t until 2002, that the Congress passed and President Bush signed H.J. Res 87, approving the site at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, for the development of a geologic repository for the disposal of high-level radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel.  The viewpoint in 2002 of many in the Congress was this issue was considered “closed.”

But, we’ve found that isn’t the case at all.  I believe many of my colleagues today would ask, “Why are we here?  Wasn’t this issue solved in 2002?  What needs to be done to get the program back on track?”

I would like the answers to these questions today and explore with the witnesses how to make this program work. 
Testifying before the committee today are:

  Mr. Paul Golan, Acting Director of the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste at the Department of Energy;

Mr. William Wehrum, Jr., Acting Assistant Administrator, Office of Air and Radiation, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency;

Dr. John Garrick, Chairman, U.S. Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board;

Mr. Bob Loux, Executive Director, Agency of Nuclear Projects, Nuclear Waste Project Office within the Office of Governor of Nevada.