June 7, 2011

DEMOCRATS ON THE House Energy Committee unloaded on the Obama administration last Wednesday. “The abject failure to follow federal law here is most disturbing,” said Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.). “I’m embarrassed,” said Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.).

What had Messrs. Inslee, Butterfield and others so upset?

Yucca Mountain, a lonely lump of earth in the Nevada desert.

After years of work, President Bush and Congress in 2002 decided that the site was suitable for an underground facility to contain the nuclear waste produced in U.S. reactors. In 2008, the Energy Department filed with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the independent nuclear authority, for a license for the facility. But the project had powerful enemies, such as Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), and the president promised swing-state Nevada voters during the 2008 campaign that he would kill it. This Mr. Obama’s Energy Department did last year, zeroing out funds and attempting to quash the government’s license application. Meanwhile, 65,000 metric tons of commercial spent nuclear fuel is packed next to dozens of reactor sites around the country, and Messrs. Inslee and Butterfield have to explain where the fees their constituents paid into a nuclear cleanup fund went.

Now, the House is holding hearings after a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report found that after decades of study and $15 billion spent, the Energy Department did not have technical or safety grounds on which to end the Yucca Mountain project. In fact, admitted Assistant Energy Secretary Pete Lyons last Wednesday, the administration’s decision-making concerned “a question of social, public acceptance.” Yet the DOE rapidly dismantled the program in a way that makes it difficult to restart work should the politics change. The administration claimed that there are more attractive alternatives but didn’t say what they were, instead appointing another panel.

That panel appears poised to recommend constructing one or more aboveground interim storage sites, on which waste would sit in dry, stainless steel casks — not like the storage tanks that posed such a danger at Japan’s stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex. “Interim,” though, is a funny word, since the GAO estimates that constructing such facilities could take decades and would probably be subject to all sorts of not-in-my-backyard pressure, too. The arduous search for a permanent, geologic storage site, meanwhile, would presumably start over.

These are reasonable things to do if Yucca is permanently dead. But it’s not even clear that’s the case. House Republicans want to restore funding for the project and forbid money from going to shut it down — though Mr. Reid will no doubt fight back in the Senate. The government’s 2008 license application is still pending at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The only thing that seems certain is that toxic politics have resulted in a lot of wasted time and money.