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Yucca Mountain Is Not Dead

March 17, 2009

By Max Schulz

No matter what Harry Reid says.

After Pres. Barack Obama unveiled his first budget two weeks ago, many proclaimed the death of the proposed nuclear-waste repository at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain. Obama campaigned against the repository last year, and his budget would allocate less than $300 million for Yucca-related activities, close to a record low for the 22-year-old project. Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) cites this as proof that the long-running drama over storing nuclear waste in Nevada is over. A Department of Energy (DOE) spokesman made similar claims. And commentators and editorialists across the political spectrum have hopped aboard the Yucca-is-dead bandwagon.

But as is often the case, the conventional wisdom is plain wrong. Yucca Mountain is not dead. Moreover, contrary to the DOE spokesman’s assertions, President Obama actually refused to take the one step that would go a long way toward killing the project once and for all. It is now only slightly less likely that nuclear waste will one day be stored safely and securely at Yucca — because the waste has to be stored somewhere (unless we pursue reprocessing, which experts predict could take decades).

The budget Obama submitted does offer some funding for Yucca Mountain. According to administration officials, those funds will be used to answer questions related to the Yucca Mountain license application submitted last year. The impartial experts at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) will take up to four years to rule on the scientific merits of building the repository. If Obama really were turning the lights out on Yucca Mountain, why would he submit any money at all to pursue a license application filed by the Bush administration?

It is true that under Obama, the government is halting the preliminary work needed to prepare the site for construction in the event the NRC gives the green light. But that doesn’t mean the slow-moving repository project is dead; for now, it’s just on hold.

If Obama wanted to kill Yucca Mountain outright, he would pull the license application from the NRC and completely eliminate the project’s budget. But he didn’t do that, largely because the repercussions of doing so without an alternative waste-management solution are significant. Completely killing the Yucca project would expose the federal government to billions of dollars in liabilities; worse, it might lead to the closure of active nuclear-power plants and prevent the construction of new ones.

Under the Nuclear Waste Act, the federal government has a legal obligation to collect and dispose of the spent fuel from the nation’s 104 commercial nuclear reactors. To pay for it, the government began levying a surcharge on electricity generated from nuclear power in the early 1980s. Around $30 billion has been collected so far, roughly one-third of which has been spent on Yucca Mountain research.

Originally the government planned to take possession of this waste in 1998. Obviously that hasn’t happened. Spent fuel is now being stored in temporary facilities, many next to the nuclear reactors themselves. There are more than 120 such temporary facilities in 39 states. This stopgap measure has helped prevent the shutdown of the nuclear industry, which provides about 20 percent of America’s electric power. But many of these temporary storage pools and casks are nearing capacity. Plans to license and build new nuclear plants may hinge on a resolution to the waste issue.

The failure to have the repository substantially completed amounts to a default by the federal government on its legal obligation. Utilities have sued the government over its failure to accept their spent fuel under the terms of the Nuclear Waste Act, and courts have found the DOE in partial breach of its obligations. But monetary judgments have been suspended since DOE can plausibly claim that its attempts to fulfill those obligations were slowed by congressional intransigence.

Obama’s problem is that he came out in opposition to Yucca Mountain without proposing a legitimate alternative. (So far, his only suggestion has been to put together a blue-ribbon commission to investigate the matter.) And without any alternative, if he yanks the license application from the NRC — which, unlike his budget shenanigans, would seriously imperil Yucca Mountain’s future — he would place the government in full breach of its legal obligations. Washington would owe the utilities billions, and we would be no closer to solving the waste problem.

A smarter move would be to continue underfunding Yucca, while also letting the NRC’s experts deal with the scientific and safety concerns. That would let Obama keep his campaign pledge that Yucca Mountain won’t open on his watch. But it would also allow for sound science to be the final arbiter of whether or not Yucca Mountain eventually opens.

Obama is nothing if not a smart politician, so we should expect to see his administration take this course. No matter what Harry Reid says, Yucca Mountain ain’t dead, at least not yet.

Original Source: http://article.nationalreview.com/?q=MDU2NDZjNTkzZWFjZWNmZTdjYTQwNDcwNmJiMWVlMzI=

 

 
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