Don't let politics drive a nuclear-waste decision

Monday, July 19, 2010

THINGS MOVE slowly in the realm of nuclear waste disposal. In 1982, the government claimed ownership of the nation's wastes and vowed to dispose of them in a central location. In 1987, it designated Yucca Mountain as that location. In 2002, the Energy Department deemed Yucca Mountain suitable, and Congress voted its approval.

But in January, President Obama declared that this was the one place America could not look to put its wastes.

The plan for a nuclear waste repository on Yucca Mountain is not dead yet, however. A three-judge Nuclear Regulatory Commission panel ruled last month that the Obama administration could not withdraw the application to license the Nevada site to store the nation's wastes. "Given the stated purposes of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act and the detailed structure of that legislation," the ruling read, "it would be illogical to allow DOE to withdraw the application without any examination of the merits . . . . ." The legislation does not give the energy secretary "the discretion to substitute his policy for the one established by Congress," it read.

Sadly, the resurrection may be short-lived. The administration has appealed the ruling to the five-member NRC board, which should produce its own ruling in a month. A reversal of the panel's decision would come as no surprise: Three of the five board members were nominated by Mr. Obama and indicated during their confirmations that they would defer to the policy of the Energy Department on the Nevada site. The board's chairman has served as a scientific adviser to Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), a powerful opponent of the Yucca Mountain plan.

So far, the Obama administration has been vocal about its commitment to alternative energies. In January, it created a commission to rethink the nation's nuclear policy. But this broad reevaluation rings hollow when it is accompanied by taking off the table the one storage site into which the government has poured $9 billion and more than 20 years of research and planning -- without even seeing whether it meets the NRC's licensing standards. Even in its efforts to rule out the Nevada location, the Energy Department conceded that the application was not flawed nor the site unsafe.

Yucca Mountain is not perfect. And it is clear that any storage site will provoke a NIMBY pushback. Technology might temper some opposition; recycling or reprocessing used fuel will not decrease the amount of waste that needs to be stored -- a staggering 57,000 tons -- but it could diminish the number of years that waste remains unstable by neutralizing particularly volatile elements. But no technology will obviate the need for a long-term geologic storage facility. Taking Yucca Mountain off the table without even seeing if it meets NRC criteria is contrary to the spirit of the commission and would mark the triumph of politics over policy.

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