If Nuclear Waste Won't Go to Nevada, Where Then?

Sunday, March 8, 2009

BY STRIPPING the funding for the nuclear repository at Nevada's Yucca Mountain, President Obama has succeeded in killing the contentious project that remains unfinished 22 years after Congress selected the site. He compounds the error by not offering an alternative. If the president's vision for a clean energy future is to be believed or is to come to fruition, nuclear energy must be a part of the mix, and the safe disposal of its radioactive waste must be given more serious consideration.

The project has burned through $7.7 billion. It was supposed to start accepting spent material from the nation's operating nuclear reactors (now numbering 104) in 1998. Our longstanding support of the Yucca Mountain facility has been grounded in the belief that the center of a desert mountain 1,000 feet underground and more than 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas was an appropriate place for the nation's nuclear waste. Instead, storage is spread over 121 above-ground sites located within 75 miles of more than 161 million people in 39 states.

There's more than a modicum of politics at play in Mr. Obama's decision. The president keeps a campaign promise to shut the site down. By doing so, he pleases Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.). And he potentially secures the swing state's place in the blue column; the Silver State hadn't voted for the Democratic presidential nominee since 1996 until it went to Mr. Obama in 2008. That's not to belittle the concerns of Nevadans. There have been worries about radioactive seepage into groundwater. But scientists have long maintained that corrosion wouldn't threaten the integrity of the storage containers for at least 10,000 years.

Now that the Yucca Mountain project is dead the obvious question is: Now what? As a senator in 2007, Mr. Obama suggested in a letter to Mr. Reid and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee, "finding another state willing to serve as a permanent national repository . . . ." He also called for redirecting resources to improve the safety and security at plants around the country until a long-term solution is found. Those alternatives, however unlikely the first one is, are more than he offered when he cut off Yucca Mountain's funding.

In the coming weeks, Energy Secretary Steven Chu will announce plans for a meeting with key stakeholders to discuss nuclear waste storage. A report is expected within a year of the meeting. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission says the dry cask storage of nuclear waste currently employed is a safe short-term solution. Thankfully, "short-term" in this case is defined in decades. But until the Obama administration comes up with a real alternative, the president's promises that nuclear power will be a part of our clean energy future will remain unkept.

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