August 4, 2011 in Opinion

Editorial: Nuke waste panel report deserves consideration


The Spokesman-Review Editorial Board

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Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna filed another lawsuit alleging federal mismanagement of its nuclear waste program on Friday, the same day a presidential blue ribbon commission released a preliminary report saying waste-related policy has “all but broken down.”

All but?

The tortuous, expensive history of Hanford cleanup efforts is old news. The state has gone to court repeatedly to compel the United States to contain the byproducts of making atomic weapons during World War II and ensuing decades of the Cold War.

A $12 billion-plus vitrification plant under construction at Hanford will encapsulate the material in glass. Once contained, it was to be shipped to a repository inside Nevada’s Yucca Mountain. But the Obama administration halted the permitting for that repository in 2010, and McKenna and other states’ attorneys general have been in court ever since. On Friday, he asked the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., to force the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to complete its review of the application by September, when a three-year window set for that purpose by Congress closes.

Meanwhile, the commission report faulted the nation’s failure to get the nuclear waste issue in hand, noting the damage done to federal relationships with state, local and tribal governments, and to public and international confidence in U.S. nuclear policy, particularly in the wake of the Fukushima disaster in Japan.

The panel made several recommendations in its draft, some encouraging, some not.

On the plus side is recognition that imposing solutions like Yucca Mountain just begs litigation. The commission suggests a bottom-up approach in which communities or tribes that want the jobs associated with a repository volunteer to become a site. Nye County, Nev., where Yucca Mountain is located, has joined the McKenna lawsuit for just that reason.

But the commission also foresees a need for interim storage facilities until central repositories are ready. It’s no stretch of the imagination to envision Hanford becoming one of the 20 or so way stations that might hold material for as long as 100 years. As Andy Fitz – one of the attorneys working on the Washington case – notes, the Navy promised to get its nuclear waste out of Idaho by 2035.

“Hanford’s right next door,” he says.

Commission members did not take a position on whether Yucca Mountain should be permitted because that issue was outside their mandate, but they did anticipate a need for at least one more repository because of the volume of waste already awaiting long-term storage.

They recommended a new agency be created just to manage waste, and that it eventually get control of the Nuclear Waste Fund. The fund’s $25 billion balance has become a major issue for utilities making payments for a storage facility – Yucca Mountain – they may never get.

The commission’s work so far is promising. But it will be for nothing if the administration treats the final version with the same indifference it showed the Simpson-Bowles fiscal commission recommendations that, if pursued, might have avoided this week’s debt-ceiling train wreck.

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