America’s nuclear option at home

Mark McIntosh Contributor
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In the president’s State of the Union speech and subsequent 2011 proposed budget, he threw his environmental community supporters a significant curve ball by proposing a significant increase in financial incentives to build more nuclear power plants. The mere mention of nuclear power during the speech was a thinly veiled attempt to bring Republicans on board to support his presently unpopular cap-and-trade proposal languishing in the Senate. The question is whether Republicans can and should trust that the president is sincere on this issue.

The president supported the idea of expanded nuclear power in this country during the campaign, albeit with the caveat that any new plants be clean, safe and cheap. For all his supportive talk on new nuclear power, he and his administration did not move slowly in declaring Yucca Mountain closed for business as the nation’s depository of nuclear waste. In fact, the administration’s proposed 2011 budget includes no funding of the Yucca depository. The administration’s political calculation behind the Yucca decision is a two-headed beast. First, they are doing everything in their power to keep Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid afloat in the state of Nevada. Second, they are also pandering to the environmental community who essentially theorize that, by killing Yucca, you successfully kill nuclear power as an option. The question Republicans should be asking is how are we to safely store all the existing and future radio active waste that will be produced by a significant expansion of nuclear power in this country.

The Yucca Mountain Depository has been a political hot potato for decades. In 1982, the United States Congress established a national policy to solve the problem of nuclear waste disposal. This policy is a federal law called the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which made the U.S. Department of Energy responsible for finding a site, building, and operating an underground disposal facility called a geologic repository. The recommendation to use a geologic repository dates back to 1957 when the National Academy of Sciences recommended that the best means of protecting the environment and public health and safety would be to dispose of the waste in rock deep underground. DOE began studying Yucca Mountain in 1978 to determine whether it would be suitable for the nation’s first long-term geologic repository for spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste currently stored at 121 above-ground sites around the nation. In 1987, Congress amended the Nuclear Waste Policy Act and directed DOE to study only Yucca Mountain, which is already located within a former nuclear test site. With over 30 years of time invested and roughly $13.5 billion spent on the project to date, it has made Yucca Mountain one of the most studied pieces of geology in the world.

In May 2009, Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu stated:

“Yucca Mountain as a repository is off the table. What we’re going to be doing is saying, let’s step back. We realize that we know a lot more today than we did 25 or 30 years ago. The NRC is saying that the dry cask storage at current sites would be safe for many decades, so that gives us time to figure out what we should do for a long-term strategy. We will be assembling a blue-ribbon panel to look at the issue.”

Although that “bipartisan” blue-ribbon panel has been anticipated for months, it was surprisingly announced the Friday after the State of the Union speech. With so much time, money and effort already invested on this issue, one has to question both the politics and the rationale behind yet another review of the storage issue plus the “safety” of the existing 121 storage sites.

While Nevada politicians and local communities have been opposed to the project for various reasons (although it supported nearly 1,000 local jobs as of 2007) and environmental groups are philosophically opposed to nuclear power as an intermediate solution, Yucca Mountain addresses some critical safety issues that can’t be ignored:

• Federal court-mandated radiation dose limits from Yucca Mountain apply for up to 1,000,000 years. Above ground concrete/steal cask storage are not being held to anywhere near the same standard despite the fact that associated risks are greater, companies can go out of business and essentially abandon sites, and casks constantly need to be maintained to ensure integrity.

• A centralized isolated depository significantly reduces the risk of accidental exposure, or worse, a terrorist act that would potentially expose local communities in close proximity to the 121 storage facilities around the country.

An argument that opponents continually use to generate national opposition is the risks associated with transporting nuclear waste to a centralized site. While there is inherent risk in moving anything from one place to another, the U.S. has safely conducted more than 3,000 shipments of spent nuclear fuel without any harmful release of radioactive material since 1970. Spent nuclear fuel is just one of thousands of potentially harmful materials that can be found on U.S. roads and railways every day.

Instead, Republicans should consider insisting that the Yucca Mountain project be reinstated and acknowledge the sacrifice all Nevadans are making to insure the safety and the availability of clean energy to all Americans. The rest of America could return the favor by rerouting a portion of the waste fees already found on everyone’s energy bills for the benefit of a Nevada permanent fund akin to Alaska’s. With only one “shovel-ready” solution that has already cost the American taxpayer $13.5 billion and studied to death (with yet another commission tasked with finding a solution—as long as it is not Yucca), Republicans would be wise to take a pass on the president’s offer until the White House stops playing politics with the American people’s safety.

Mark McIntosh is an environmental law attorney and policy consultant providing expertise in natural resources, air and energy strategies. He most recently served the George W. Bush administration as Deputy General Counsel of the White House Council on Environmental Quality after having worked as an environmental lawyer and policy counsel in the private sector and for some of the country’s largest and most respected NGOs, including The Pew Charitable Trusts.