Opinion

SUNDAY, MARCH 8, 2009

Our View: Yucca Mountain decision delays N-waste solution

Washingtonians shouldn’t be shocked that the Obama administration is backing away from Yucca Mountain in Nevada as a permanent respository of nuclear waste. Disgusted, yes. Surprised, no. Not after decades of federal fumbling on this issue.

If Yucca Mountain is indeed out of the question, then the progress report after a half-century of looking for a permanent site is filled with empty pages. The $10.8 billion spent at Yucca since 1983 is wasted. The government is on the hook for tens of billions of dollars to utilities for contracts that required a government repository.

Meanwhile, percolating underground at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation and creeping closer to the largest river in the West is a plume of doom. If the Columbia is contaminated, the Northwest would be devastated. It wouldn’t be good for the rest of the nation either.

As Gov. Chris Gregoire said after the state filed a lawsuit over the endless delays: “If we were to fail to clean up that site and contaminate the Columbia River, the costs would be way more than anything it would take us to clean up the site itself.”

And that’s saying something, because the projected cost of cleaning up Hanford is $50 billion. Then again, that estimate was predicated on having some place to permanently house the waste.

The threat is real. A chemical stew of about 53 million gallons of radioactive waste languishes in underground tanks, some of which have leaked. The plan is to vitrify the waste into glass logs and haul them away. Toxic drums also need to be dug up and hauled off. But to where?

Congress settled on the remote and dry Yucca Mountain in 1987 after decades of political wrangling. Since then, scientists have discovered that water runs through the mountain at a faster rate than previously believed. And that raises worries that nuclear waste will eventually leach into the water table.

The process that selected Yucca (over alternatives that included the Hanford site itself and another potential repository in Barnwell, S.C.) was political, not scientific. The decision to abandon Yucca also smacks of politics, with Harry Reid of Nevada positioned as Senate majority leader and President Obama needing his help to pass legislation.

It’s safe to say the political process hasn’t worked. Indeed, politicians around the country are fearful that this latest decision puts their states back in play as repositories. That would mean another debate with no end in sight.

Obama has called for more study. But that’s not change we can believe in, unless he’s willing to keep Yucca Mountain on the table and place the ultimate decision in the hands of scientific experts.

It is important that the site be safe. It is important that a verdict be rendered soon. Politics isn’t up to the task, so turn this over to science.



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