With the growing concern over global warming, nuclear power plants have leaped back into the national conversation as a cleaner alternative to facilities powered by fossil fuels. However, the issue of nuclear waste storage remains a big impediment, and the nation may soon be taking a step backward.
The Obama administration signaled two months ago that it wasn’t inclined to proceed with a long-standing plan for permanent storage beneath Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Harry Reid, of Nevada, is the Senate majority leader, and the president needs his cooperation on a heavy slate of issues, so it isn’t surprising that Yucca would re-emerge as a point of contention.
Recently, the administration showed that it really is looking elsewhere to solve this problem by slashing nearly $100 million from the effort to license Yucca Mountain with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. As a practical matter, this will severely curtail the scientific inquiry into whether the mountain is a viable long-term site for nuclear waste storage.
Reid has already indicated that Yucca Mountain is off the table, which means the remaining $197 million for the licensing in the 2010 budget will be wasted. Add to that the $10.8 billion the government has already spent. And add to that the potential for tens of billions in payouts to utilities that entered into contracts with the feds to temporarily store waste with the promise of a permanent government repository. All the nation will have to show for this two-decade effort is a very large price tag.
Meanwhile, utilities have been storing spent fuel near population centers and key waterways across the country. The $50 billion cleanup at Hanford Nuclear Reservation was predicated on having a permanent storage site. In the meantime, 53 million gallons of toxic waste has been buried on-site, and some of the tanks have leaked. The underground plume threatens to contaminate the nearby Columbia River.
If Yucca Mountain isn’t the answer, then what is? Studies show that Yucca would have only had enough capacity to store the current waste from temporary sites, so another solution would’ve been needed anyway. But by taking Yucca Mountain off the table, the Obama administration has exacerbated the challenge.
What’s clearly needed from this point forward is a process driven by science, not politics. We need to avoid finding the best solution only to have it quashed for political considerations. That means leaving Yucca Mountain on the table if the process points to that site being part of the plan.
France and Japan have pressed forward with nuclear power plants despite not having permanent storage solutions. That would be difficult in the United States, because the risk of being stuck with the waste raises the cost of financing.
The government needs to demonstrate that it is serious about solving the storage problem, so the country can add nuclear power to its clean-energy arsenal.
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