Court Orders NRC And Obama Administration To Process Yucca Mountain License
    By Hank Campbell | August 15th 2013 01:02 PM | 16 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    It's not often that I can say I am stunned by a judicial decision but I have been talking about Yucca Mountain since President Obama took office and immediately honored his deal with Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada to kill the project, after every study by scientists found it the safest place for 70,000 metric tons of high-level waste and a whole lot of money had been spent.

    It was the most flagrant scientization of politics in recent memory - and the court has taken notice.

    In what the Wall Street Journal calls a "major rebuke" the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a writ of mandamus to the administration - mandamus is Latin for "we command" and is a direct judicial order compelling the government to fulfill its legal obligation. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act requires that the NRC "shall issue a final decision approving or disapproving" applications within three years of submission. The application for Yucca Mountain was in 2008. President Obama tried to get the Department of Energy to withdraw the application but that was also illegal. The President cannot just overturn laws made by Congress.

    So the president has instead stacked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission with appointees opposed to nuclear power and specifically Yucca Mountain. The current head of the NRC is a non-physicist whose primary qualification seems to have been writing an advocacy book against Yucca Mountain.

    But that is the past. The good news is that the court, with a somewhat surprising decision, has declared there will be no more stalling, like the administration has done on other projects it happens not to like, such as Keystone XL.

    The bad news: The president will now insure that the NRC does not get the millions they claim they will need to 'process' the application for Yucca Mountain. Since he won't give them the money, and his fellow Democrats are firmly against energy science and won't overrule him, the NRC can't approve it (or not approve it, though they have no science or legal basis to do that) and it will never happen. Dissenting Appeals Court Judge Merrick Garland said ordering the NRC to process the permit without enough money "amounts to little more than ordering the commission to spend part of those funds unpacking its boxes and the remainder packing them up again."

    President Obama. Credit: Zuma Press. Link: Wall Street Journal.

    So we know how it is likely to end (at least until 2017) but the decision by the court merits some interest as a watershed anyway. The difference between Yucca Mountain and Keystone XL is that a Yucca Mountain decision is Federal law - by insuring that the NRC does not consider the license, the administration has forced the court to issue this "extraordinary remedy". Judge Brett Kavanaugh wrote for the 2-1 majority that the case "raises significant questions about the scope of the Executive's authority to disregard federal statutes."

    And that was always the problem. Yucca Mountain was not the only choice available for nuclear waste storage - it was the best, but not the only one - and its location was obviously political. Yet lots and lots of things are political, over 100 individual storage sites with varying levels of security are political also. Yucca Mountain is the best choice but that doesn't mean it will ever happen.

    It may mean that the days when the administration could just pick and choose which laws to honor are over.

    As The Wall Street Journal  puts it, "A federal court is stating, overtly, that federal regulators are behaving as if they are a law unto themselves."

    If the president and the NRC worked on Wall Street, they would already have been indicted. When you are the government, it is just politicization of science as usual.

    If you are interested in other violations of science by political interests, you can still buy Science Left Behind in hardback, at fine retailers everywhere.


    Harry Reid is a corrupt one-man stumbling block to solving problems. He is most efficient at placing his relatives and friends in well-paid positions that feed on taxpayer money. I'm not aware of anything he has done to advance the general public good.

    This is a really stunning decision.  In general I believe that party loyalty has functionally eroded the checks and balances between the branches of government, which is why so many people in government feel that they can disregard the Constitution.  To see any decision made with respect to rule of law instead of party loyalty is shocking.  It is sad that such decisions have become so rare.  Such behavior is equally endemic in both parties.
    I agree. You never want to editorialize or use "I" in the first paragraph of anything but I had actually taken to Twitter with a joking countdown of how long the administration had been knowingly and intentionally breaking Federal law and the court had not made a decision after the oral arguments.

    The last time I updated that was 4 days ago (467 days) - and then this happened and I was truly surprised that this DC court did not find some way to rationalize it. 

    Of course, the White House will still win. The NRC will just wink while they get no money to 'examine' the request.  Meanwhile, the president will get Allison Macfarlane - the latest non-physicist to run the NRC - approved for a full 5-year term as payback.
    From the concurring opinion, “Although the Commission had a duty to act on the application and the means to fulfill that duty, former Chairman Gregory Jaczko orchestrated a systematic campaign of noncompliance,.....Jaczko unilaterally ordered Commission staff to terminate the review process in October 2010; instructed staff to remove key findings from reports evaluating the Yucca Mountain site; and ignored the will of his fellow Commissioners.”
    Jazcko came to NRC commission from Harry Reid's staff. The review was almost concluded.

    The long term, devastating, consequences of Yucca Mountain is the absolute certainty, by millions of engineers, fabricators, and contractors, that NRC politics rendered their careers, contribution, and value, as worthless. In dealing with the NRC, if you followed the rules, you went bankrupt. No bright teen considers a most difficult technical career which wholly depends on the wisdom and integrity of Harry Reid. Reid will not last long, but the disaster he caused, in nuclear energy will harm this nation long after he is dirt. From the court ruling, " As things stand, therefore, the Commission is simply flouting the law." It could be argued that the DoE's and NRC's conduct, lying and cheating, aligns closer to Enron, or the KBG than to American fair dealings. What has been lost is trust.

    If we check the record, what Enron did was actually legal. Wrong, and a disaster, but legal (then - it is now illegal). And the heads of the company still went to jail. However, blocking the application by the NRC is both wrong and illegal and always was so tainting Enron with by comparison is not fair.  They can take heart that there are no Federal marshalls that will escort the NRC to jail the way they would if this were a private company.
    We could quibble about criminal, civil, and international law, but your main point, the NRC, though found guilty of violating the law, will simply proceed ignoring the court's order, is the central issue. Can a Commission, a creature of Congress and the President, simply, effectively, thumb its nose at a court order? The court has power to sanction, e.g. put a brick on the Commissioners' pay checks, or send in marshals to arrest them. I do not know the remedy, but I do know no one can regain a generation of lost talent and effort. Those whose careers were destroyed by government misconduct, have lost trust. I know engineers who guided their children away from the profession, due to regulatory malfeasance. This is the loss which our nation has and will suffer.

    Rather think Obama and crew ought to be indicted regardless of what job they are in...mostly for sabotaging the future, in endless ways.

    Is there any chance of moving the Japanese Fukushima nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain too? Surely something needs to be done about this global problem by a global power like the USA, this radiation is also going to be around for thousands of years.

    See this news article 'Radioactive Levels at Fukushima Jump 9000% in 3 Days'at which describes how....

    'Some of the highest levels of ionizing radiation yet detected since the disaster first occurred were recently recorded at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power facility in Japan, according to shocking new reports. The Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), which runs the crippled nuclear plant, says levels of radioactive cesium in a water well were 9,000 percent higher on July 8, 2013, than they were three days earlier, and nobody knows why this is the case.'

    'The Asahi Shimbun reports that TEPCO observed the spike after testing water in a well on the seaward side of Fukushima’s No. 2 reactor. According to readings taken, radioactive cesium levels registered at an astounding 27,000 becquerels per liter (Bq/l), which is the highest ever since March 11, 2011, when the tsunami and earthquake first struck the plant. At this point, the cause of the spike is still unknown.'

    We could have technology to do just what you want, but that has been sabotaged as well. The president lauded his 'all things' approach to energy in his State of the Union address. Obviously any nuclear technology in the US will be very expensive - the safety redundancies are much greater than anything Japan has, and the regulations also.

    To create US technology that would use nuclear energy and nuclear weapon waste usable as fuel, the administration agreed to provide partial funding for MOX.  After that speech, the administration changed its mind, so we have a partially built plant that could do just what you want - but now they either have to cancel it or local customers will have to pay a fortune before it is even ready. 

    MOX has nothing to do with Yucca Mountain - nor does Fukushima - but it shows again that our energy policy is goofy.  We yell about coal but protest natural gas. We squander tens of billions of dollars on solar technology that is 40 years old but won't spend a fraction of that on modern nuclear power.

    If America had been improving nuclear power for the last few decades the way we have everything else, and that had been in Fukushima, there would have been no problem. 4th Gen nuclear cannot have that issue. But the president's constituents hate nuclear power so he is not going to suddenly embrace it.

    You say that If America had been improving nuclear power for the last few decades and that had been in Fukushima, there would have been no problem. 4th Gen nuclear cannot have that issue. Why not? How could 4th Gen nuclear power not be affected by earthquakes and tsunamis?

    No one is worried about tsunamis or earthquakes, people are worried about leaks or meltdowns. It can't happen. Pres. Clinton and Sen. Kerry managed to get the IFR shut down in 1994, after it had been successfully tested - Three Mile Island, Chernobyl or Fukushima could not have happened there, even in 1994. I don't generally recommend wikipedia but it is a good place to start for the IFR.
    Yes, 4th gen nuclear can be affected by tsunamis and earthquakes, and any number of similar natural disasters. The big difference and improvement in 4th gen nuclear reactors though, is the expanded use of natural circulation, which ensures that cooling liquid (usually water) continues flowing through the reactor core even if there is no electrical power available to drive pumps.

    One hazard unique to nuclear reactors is called decay heat. With a fossil fueled plant, once it is turned off it will cool pretty rapidly and thus not pose any danger to its structural componts (pipes, boilers, etc.). But with nuclear, even after the reactor is shut down, there is a period of time that heat will continue to be generated even though the fission process has stopped. That heat is called decay heat, and it can be large enough to cause melting of the components that contain the nuclear fuel and the byproducts of nuclear fission. Reactor designers have to account for that heat and provide mechanisims for its safe removal.

    For years during the beginnings of nuclear power, they did this by providing backup systems that would provide enough electrical energy to drive the main or reactor coolant pumps, thus ensuring the cooling water continued to flow through the reactor core and keep it cool, even in the presence of decay heat. Ultimately this meant that reactor stations would need to have emergency power supplies (usually emergency diesel generators) or equivalent. Those systems would automatically start and run in the event normal electrical power was lost for any reason.

    At Fukishima, those backup systems worked flawlessly, even through the earthquake. What got them ultimately was the subsequent tsunami that took out the diesel generaors that were providing that backup power and keeping the coolant pumps running. Once power was lost, reactor coolant pumps stopped working, coolant flow stopped, the decay heat could no longer be effectively removed from the reactor core(s), and structures designed to contain the reactor fuel and highly radioactive fission byproducts eventually melted and failed. Is so doing they released hydrogen, which then built up to sufficnet concentrations inside the containment building that an explosion(s) eventually occurred.

    What 4th gen nuclear reactor designs do is to remove or significantly reduce the need for backup/emergency power in emrgency situations like this. In 4th gen, the reactor and supporting systems are designed so that coolant continues to flow through the reactor core - even with total loss of electrical power (called a station blackout). This is done by taking advantage of natural physics and heat transfer - hot water rises, cool water sinks. With a modern reactor core design (by the way, the US Navy has been successfully using natural circulation in its reactor designs for a number of years now), the coolant continues to flow through the reactor and thus to remove decay heat - even without any electrical power available.

    I would add to this excellent treatise (I am a dummy on Gen IV, but engineered a score of G I, II, & III).
    When a hydrodynamic expert in tsunamis tells you that your emergency electrical gear in the basement is not safe, due to modern seismic science, do not formally say "that is one man's opinion", particularly if you own six old nukes on a coast line noted for the largest tsunamis on earth.
    No one knows (i do not) if the earthquake split open the plumbing at Fukushima. It is leaking like a sieve, probably in inaccessible areas (otherwise they would have stopped the flow).. Any water cooled system has a limit on leakage, including Gen N+1
    Nuke fuel stays "hot" for millennia The solution is let it cool off for a few years, then bury it like Dracula. Yucca Mountain would safely hold both.

    Right, let's not build nuclear plants on top of the San Andreas Fault, there is no need for that. Fukushima is not the fault of nuclear power, even older technology, it isn't often you have a giant earthquake and a tsunami. My point about Gen IV was that meltdowns cannot occur, not that it is impossible for asteroids to fall from the sky and hit power plants.

    Another bit of wisdom. The US must use uranium or cease to be an advanced industrial nation. Uranium plants should be located near a modest body of water, in seismically quiet areas. We have many. The old idea, never used, was to build a nuclear campus, perhaps a dozen nukes located on the same property (big) with centralized spent fuel handling/ shipment facilities and just transmission lines going out across state borders to load centers. No nuke should be near the San Andreas.
    To focus on the central theme of this article: long term spent fuel storage is a federal, not a state's right. We settled, at Appomattox, the right of the central government to trump local politician's objections. Harry Reid is acting like Jeff Davis. both belong in the dust bin of history. Both exposed this nation to disaster. Spent fuel, like gold, should be underground, in 1- 2 places, with an Army division stationed above. Properly packaged; it is essentially harmless, unless nuts get at it. Our present policy is suicidal.