A safe place for waste

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In February of this year, President Obama announced his support for billions of dollars in loan guarantees for two new nuclear reactors in Georgia. This is the first nuclear power plant project to break ground in nearly three decades.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu hailed the loans as “a significant step by the Obama administration to restart our domestic nuclear industry, helping to create valuable long-term jobs and reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.”

However, only a few months later, Secretary Chu endangered the future of the reactors in Georgia and every other nuclear power project.

In March, the Department of Energy asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to withdraw the government’s application to approve Yucca Mountain, Nev. as the nation’s nuclear waste repository. By law, the government is required to collect nuclear fuel and provide for safe storage. Without such storage, no new nuclear power plant can be licensed.

So what is Yucca Mountain? Over the last 23 years the government has been constructing a waste repository beneath a mountain in the middle of a military facility. The desert stretches for miles around the site located 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

Because of decades of intensive study, we know more about the geology of Yucca Mountain than perhaps any other place on the planet. Between 1987 and 2002, the government spent $3.8 billion on scientific and technical studies of Yucca Mountain. Miles of tunnels and hundreds of boreholes have been dug into the mountain.

In 1998, the Department of Energy, under President Clinton’s leadership, concluded that Yucca Mountain was an appropriate site. Approval was granted in 2002 and work began to move forward on building the appropriate containment facility. During all this time, scientific studies continued to be conducted.

Now, with $90 billion already spent to build the repository, Secretary Chu has halted the project and cut off funding without a substantive scientific study to back him up. Instead of relying on decades of existing studies, President Obama and Secretary Chu have created yet another “blue ribbon panel” to determine what we should do with nuclear waste.

I don’t think we need another committee, not when the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is already studying Yucca Mountain to grant final approval. The NRC has refused the administration’s attempt to withdraw the license application, noting that the law does not allow the Department of Energy to take this action without Congressional approval.

Over the past decades, nuclear power companies have contributed $30 billion to build Yucca Mountain. Already, delays in managing waste have forced the government to pay $214 million in settlements to power companies. Over the next ten years, the taxpayer liability could rise to more than $12 billion.

With so much talk about waste, many wonder whether we should move forward with new nuclear power plants. Much of the most dangerous waste was created in the nuclear weapons manufacturing process, not via power generation. In fact, the newest nuclear reactors can use reprocessed nuclear fuel that typically becomes waste. Even though American scientists created this method, we currently don’t have any reactors in the U.S. that use reprocessed fuel.

Nuclear power is emissions free and much of the fuel is produced domestically. The significant foreign producers of uranium are our close allies, Canada and Australia. Nuclear power is a safe, reliable source of clean energy that we should expand in the U.S. I’ve introduced legislation, the SAFE Nuclear Act, to help bring new reactors online through a streamlined process that puts safety first.

This week, I joined 91 of my colleagues, Democrat and Republican, to write a letter to Secretary Chu asking him to drop his objections to the NRC licensing process. I believe the commission is well equipped to study Yucca Mountain and make a final determination of whether it is safe to store nuclear waste.

Right now, we face a choice. We can keep waste deep beneath a mountain on a military reservation in the middle of the desert, or leave it scattered across the country. If we want to expand clean, domestically produced nuclear energy we need to move forward with Yucca Mountain.

Rep. Joe Pitts (R) represents Pennsylvania’s 16th District in the U.S. House of Representatives.