The Bush administration and Congress seem hell-bent on continuing an old American tradition -- mishandling nuclear energy to the point where lack of public trust makes that energy option no option at all.
The latest bungling surrounds the ad nauseam process of choosing a national dump site for nuclear waste. To some key decision makers in Congress and the administration, Yucca Mountain in the Nevada desert is the most likely spot.
Never mind that the Energy Department's own chief geologist on the project has deemed the site unsafe. Never mind that another eminent geologist chosen to review that finding has corroborated it and agrees that an earthquake is highly likely on Yucca Mountain within the next 10,000 years -- the government's working number for the life of the dump.
What is troubling in the shorter run is that the government doesn't have to bury its nuclear waste in an earthquake zone. Critics of the Yucca Mountain plan have been touting safer, cheaper options, and key policy makers are ignoring them.
As early as 1987, Congress voted to make Yucca Mountain the only site to be studied for use as the nation's so-called repository of high-level waste. Nevada, of course, balked and has been battling the federal government in court. Registering their displeasure at being targeted for the dump, Nevada officials have denied even the permits needed to do exploratory drilling on the site.
Meanwhile, no one is satisfied with the sluggish progress in developing the dump, even as the chief geologist on the project, Jerry Szymanski, has raised questions that to any reasonable person would end consideration of the site immediately.
Sen. Richard Bryan (D-Nev.) was one of the first to take Szymanski's fears seriously, even when Szymanski's bosses at the Energy Department were dismissing them. Bryan has been pushing a bill in Congress to store waste temporarily in metal or concrete casks. It would let utilities store spent nuclear fuel rods at the sites where they were used in the first place, thus avoiding the need to haul the dangerous waste across country to Nevada.
Getting broad-based support for any alternative will be a tough battle, given the government inertia behind the Yucca Mountain option. Not only has the bureaucracy grown used to the idea of permanent storage in Nevada but many in Congress who approved the idea are no doubt relieved that the dangerous cargo isn't coming to their state. Yet science is telling the government that Nevada is not the place.
The Energy Department's boss on the project, Carl Gertz, told us he isn't taking sides and will continue to collect data. He said he is still looking for a "show stopper" -- scientific findings to signal thumbs down on Yucca Mountain. But, he said, that hasn't happened yet.
Pending such a show stopper, the government will continue studying Yucca Mountain. Those studies have already cost $750 million and will likely cost $3 billion more before a conclusion is drawn -- a conclusion that Szymanski offered free three years ago. Gertz acknowledged that the study process will take years to complete.