Dump still needed at Yucca Mountain

LAS VEGAS - A plan to weaken the toxicity of deadly nuclear waste could cost $280 billion, according to a new Energy Department report. And the plan would still call for a national storage site, such as Nevada's Yucca Mountain.

The process, known as transmutation, lowers toxicity in the waste.

A report by the Energy Department claims even if transmutation is a viable alternative, the dump at Yucca Mountain, 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, will still be needed to hold the less dangerous waste.

The report says even if transmutation works it could take 117 years and cost $280 billion to transform all of the nation's nuclear waste into a less-deadly product.

The report calls for a six-year $281 million study of transmutation.

''Some impact of (transmutation), if successful, on the first repository program, could reduce potential long-term radiation by a factor of about 10,'' the report said. ''However a repository is still required due to the presence of (Department of) Defense wastes, which are not readily treatable by ... transmutation of waste, and the long lived radioactivity generated by (transmutation) operations.''

The Energy Department is studying Yucca Mountain to determine whether it is suitable for a nuclear waste dump. About $6 billion has been spent on the study. The cost for the entire project is estimated at $43 billion.

A steering committee of officials from the Energy Department, national laboratories and the National Academy of Sciences produced the transmutation report after a request last year by Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M.

Referring to the projected costs of transmutation, the report acknowledged ''such a large upfront expenditure commitment will be a major challenge.'' Some costs could be offset by the sale of electricity that could result from transmutation but those offsets ''may be small,'' the report said.

The report also suggested pursuing technical and financial collaboration with ongoing transmutation programs in Europe, Russia and Asia.

Eight transmutation stations at unspecified sites would be needed, the report said. Noting the potential resistance by the communities chosen for stations, the report said, it would be important to develop a national consensus supporting transmutation.

Domenici has questioned whether a repository at Yucca Mountain will ever be built and has turned to transmutation as a potential alternative. He asked for the study as chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on energy and water.

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee, said he thinks Domenici will push ahead on transmutation.

Reid and other members of the Nevada congressional delegation staunchly oppose the proposed repository at Yucca Mountain and welcome any other solutions.

''If transmutation becomes a large scale project with regional centers across the country, we may be able to develop options other than a repository,'' Sen. Richard Bryan, D-Nev., said.

Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev., said it is better to pursue transmutation than to continue studying Yucca Mountain. ''This is the policy this nation should have undertaken in 1979, and we cannot afford to delay another year.''


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