June 8, 2012 in Opinion

Editorial: Feds need rational nuclear waste policy


The Spokesman-Review Editorial Board

Members of The Spokesman-Review editorial board help to determine The Spokesman-Review's position on issues of interest to the Inland Northwest. Board members are:

Northwest utility customers have so far paid about $300 million for a permanent nuclear waste repository. There is no such facility. And thanks to a 2010 decision by Energy Secretary Steven Chu to terminate work on the proposed Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada, the United States will not have one for decades.

But the Department of Energy continues to collect a one-tenth of a cent tax on every kilowatt-hour from the nation’s nuclear plants, including the Columbia Generating Station at Hanford.

The utilities and public officials in Washington and other states believe that’s wrong. Last week, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., agreed.

In fact, the three judges agree so emphatically they likened Chu to an ostrich with his head in the sand. Well said.

The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 authorizes the energy secretary to impose a tax on nuclear kilowatts according to what the projected future cost of a repository might be. For Yucca Mountain, a 2008 estimate put the cost at $97 billion through 2129.

The Nuclear Waste Fund will contain $28 billion by the end of this year. As the court noted, actuarial projections suggest that balance, revenues from future taxes, and income from interest on the account will be more than enough to cover the projected expenses at Yucca Mountain. With that project on the shelf pending other litigation by the state of Washington and others, how does the Energy Department project a cost for it or any other facility that might be proposed, and what tax level might be appropriate to pay the bills?

Chu, a Nobel Prize winner in physics, has not bothered even to apply his mind to the task. The department has simply continued to use the Yucca Mountain numbers. Hence the comparison between Chu and an ostrich, head down, “unaware of any information that questions the existing fee structure.”

The department has not even bothered to adjust its numbers for the certain increase in costs that a delay in starting work on a new facility will cause. The nation has already sunk $12 billion into the ground at Yucca Mountain, which the Obama administration abandoned at the behest of Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader.

Adding to the “irrationality”: department cost projections, the court says, overstate the projected utility obligations by $30 billion, “which, even today, is real money.”

The court could have ordered Chu to suspend the fee immediately. Unfortunately, the judges instead gave him six months to rerun the numbers, in the meantime retaining their jurisdiction over the case.

Chu may be an outgoing member of an outgoing administration in six months, but nuclear waste – how to store it, and the potential costs – will remain. Tons, some dating to World War II, remain at Hanford. With the recent approval of two new reactors in Georgia, the need will become more urgent. Yucca Mountain remains the only proposed solution, and, remarkably, much of the money to pay for it is already in hand.

Irrationality all too accurately describes the Obama administration’s response to the problem.

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