Return to Yucca Mountain

In my opinion, the Obama administration’s decision to block the storage of nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain is a major and under-reported scandal. It represents the triumph of raw politics over the public good.

As the Washington Post’s editors explain, our nuclear power plants generate large amounts of radioactive fuel that needs to be stored. For decades, the plan was to store this material in a permanent geologically isolated facility in Yucca Mountain, Nevada.

The federal government spent more than $15 billion researching and developing the site. Issues of safety and environmental impact were thoroughly studied. The Department of Energy, under Spencer Abraham, stated that “after over 20 years of research and billions of dollars of carefully planned and reviewed scientific field work, the Department has found that a repository at Yucca Mountain brings together the location, natural barriers, and design elements most likely to protect the health and safety of the public, including those Americans living in the immediate vicinity, now and long into the future.”

The department presented its analysis in a voluminous Final Environmental Impact Statement, published in February 2002 and supplemented in 2008 with an analysis of the risks posed by transporting waste to the Yucca repository. It found that the disposal facility would not “result in impacts to public health beyond those that could result from the prescribed radiation exposure and activity concentration limits in [federal laws] during the 10,000-year period after closure.”

However, the Yucca Mountain project was never funded. Harry Reid screamed and candidate Barack Obama, looking to carry a swing-state, promised to pull the plug if elected. Once in office, he delivered on that promise. In addition to denying funding, the Obama administration has been trying to close the Yucca Mountain facility, even though current U.S. law designates it as the nation’s nuclear waste repository.

Meanwhile, the problem of where to store nuclear waste persists. And now, after years of study, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has conclued that the Yucca Mountain facility would have been technically sound.

What happens now? In a rational world, the Yucca Mountain project would be revived. In Obama-world, nothing will happen. The current administration insists that a long-term storage facility can be built only in a place that would welcome it.

Good luck finding such a place.

Where will nuclear waste be stored going forward? The Obama administration speaks of using “interim” facilities. These facilities would likely become long-term in practice. But as long as the labels “permanent” and “long-term” are avoided, the fall-out, at least in the political sense, probably won’t be severe.

Speaking of politics, it’s probably best if Republicans don’t press the Yucca Mountain issue at this time, notwithstanding the ammunition provided by the NRC report. With no chance of getting the Obama administration to budge, why give Harry Reid an issue for 2016?

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