THE NATION’S nuclear waste strategy is — well, actually, the nation doesn’t have much of a nuclear waste strategy. Nearly 30 years ago, Congress deemed Yucca Mountain, Nev., to be the site of a permanent geological depository for the thousands of tons of spent fuel and other radioactive wastes produced in nuclear power stations and other industrial facilities. Since then, intense politicking has undercut that plan, still at best many years away from realization. Meantime, the waste keeps piling up, stored next to operating and decommissioned nuclear power plants.
A bipartisan Senate bill, introduced last month by Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), proposes to bring a little more order to the mess. Still to be resolved, however, is what to do about Yucca Mountain.
Instead of solving the Yucca issue, the bill’s sponsors decided to focus on building every other storage site the country needs, reflecting the reality that the nation requires a more orderly transition from the haphazard waste storage system in place now to permanent storage, whenever that’s finally ready.
Taking their cue from the solid work of a presidential blue-ribbon commission, the bill foresees the quick building of a pilot waste storage site that would take radioactive material on an interim basis. After that, the government would accept applications from localities seeking the economic benefits of hosting additional interim storage sites. The idea is to get waste off reactor sites, consolidate it and make storage safer and cheaper than it is now. Then regulators could consider long-term options. All new siting decisions would require the consent of local communities and state leaders, heading off Yucca Mountain-style political gridlock.
The bill would also create an agency charged exclusively with handling nuclear waste. Crucially, it would have an assured source of funding, rather than relying on yearly appropriations. This all makes a lot of sense.
One reason the bill has a good shot at becoming law is that both Yucca fans and critics can accept that the country needs safe new storage sites and a logical process for identifying them, regardless of how the Nevada project goes. The waste needs to get off reactor sites now, and even if Yucca goes forward, it wouldn’t be big enough to store all the country’s waste. The bill deserves to pass.
It’s crucial, though, that interim storage sites not become permanent ones. The best way to head that off is to proceed with Yucca Mountain. President Obama zeroed out funding for Yucca in his first term, making good on a campaign promise to swing-state Nevada. But the project isn’t dead. In fact, Yucca proponents contend, that there’s no need for debate about the site: Existing law clearly designates Yucca as a permanent repository. Besides, a thorough analysis from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission recently found that the project would pose minimal radiation risk for a million years, and Nevada’s leaders aren’t as unified in opposition as many assume. Though the other side doesn’t have common sense behind it, it does have powerful political allies who have hobbled the project. They need to back down or be defeated.
Congress should pass the nuclear waste bill. Then it should see to moving the Yucca project forward.