THE COUNTRY’S nuclear power plants have produced massive amounts of reliable electricity for decades while emitting negligible amounts of carbon dioxide. The big drawback is the more than 70,000 tons of radioactive spent fuel U.S. nuclear facilities have piled up — with 2,000 more tons added to the total every year. A report the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) released in late January underscores that this problem is solvable — if only Congress and the White House would stick to a plan.
For decades, the plan was to open a permanent, geologically isolated storage facility in Yucca Mountain, Nev., in which canisters of dry waste would be stored behind layers of rock and titanium barriers. The federal government spent more than $15 billion researching and developing the site. Until, that is, not-in-my-backyard opposition from Nevada leaders such as Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D) prevailed. In 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama promised to pull the plug on the Yucca project. After Mr. Obama took swing-state Nevada in the presidential election, his Energy Department ended funding.
But the regulatory process had already begun, resulting in the NRC report. The country’s nuclear regulators found that the Yucca facility would have been technically sound. They considered the potential for corrosion, cracking, damage from seismic activity and unintentional human intrusion. They gamed out the likelihood of breaches over massive time scales — up to a million years from now. Everything checked out, with a few conditions. The NRC’s experts, for example, would have barred planes from flying directly over the site. They also noted that if the federal government restarted work on Yucca, officials would have to obtain certain land and water rights from the state.
This means, firstly, that opponents of nuclear power who raise the spectre of radioactive waste haunting humanity hundreds of thousands of years from now wildly exaggerate the difficulty of the problem. Nothing is risk-free, but there are ways to make the risks extremely small. Nuclear power, meanwhile, is likely to play a part in responding to a much more important environmental threat: climate change.
The NRC report’s conclusions also show that Nevadans’ intense opposition to the Yucca project is unreasonable, unambiguously harmful to the country and should end. In a rational world, the NRC’s report would result in Nevadans backing down, Congress restoring funding and the Obama administration pushing Yucca along. This could fit neatly into the administration’s plan for nuclear waste, which foresees moving waste off reactor sites to interim storage facilities, then to a permanent repository when it’s ready. There’s no technical reason that the permanent repository shouldn’t be Yucca Mountain.
In the world we have, however, Nevadans are entrenched in opposition and the Obama administration is determined to put a long-term storage facility only in a place that would welcome it. It’s not clear where that would be. Meantime, whatever interim storage facility the government comes up with will not be so interim, storing nuclear waste for decades while officials start an unnecessary search for a new permanent site.