In 1987 – a full 42 years after the onset of the Manhattan Project – Congress settled on Yucca Mountain in Nevada as the permanent repository for more than 14,000 tons of radioactive waste left over from the Cold War production of the nation’s nuclear stockpile. Twenty-two years later, that solution – along with the $10 billion to $12 billion spent on it – are being flushed down the drain.
That’s 64 years … and counting.
So where will this waste be stored? For the foreseeable future, right where it is now, because the Obama administration doesn’t have a backup plan, according to the McClatchy news service. For the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, this is horrible news. Hanford is home to 53 million gallons of toxic sludge in 177 underground tanks, some of which have leaked at least 1 million gallons of waste. A subterranean plume continues to edge closer to the Columbia River. A contaminated river would be disastrous for the entire Northwest.
The plan was to turn the waste into huge glassified logs, using a process known as vitrification, then ship them to Yucca Mountain for storage. It has been delayed four times since 1999. Now, the Obama administration is following through on a campaign promise to Nevada and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid by scuttling the Yucca plan, which leaves nowhere to ship the logs.
Sites in Idaho and South Carolina were also counting on shipping waste to Yucca. Now all of them will have to wait and could possibly be recipients of even more waste. The Navy needs to send its spent nuclear fuel somewhere. It was supposed to be stored deep beneath Yucca Mountain.
In addition, any hopes of adding more nuclear power generation will be dashed if storage remains an open question.
The U.S. Energy Department acknowledges that it cannot fulfill its commitments to remove nuclear waste from temporary sites if the Yucca Mountain project is closed. In a letter to Congress this year, Energy Secretary Steven Chu wrote: “Without a viable repository program to provide a reliable means of disposition, spent fuel and high-level waste will become stranded, and the sites themselves will become de facto repositories.”
No, thanks. The Columbia River is too important.
The choice of Yucca was always controversial and, in part, political. The decision to abandon Yucca is also political. But this waste needs to be stored somewhere, and the Obama administration has a duty to start the process.
Politics got us into this mess, so politics ought to be neutralized as much as possible in the search for a permanent storage solution. Let scientists take the lead, and let’s follow their suggestions.
It probably won’t take them 64 years to decide.