AS THE SENATE on Wednesday begins considering President Obama’s nomination of Allison Macfarlane to lead the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), it should remember that lawmakers helped create the expensive and risky mess that currently serves as nuclear waste policy in America. The status quo is the result not of any grand design but of a quarter-century of political fighting — and Congress is largely responsible for cleaning it up.
Nuclear power holds great promise to provide electricity with practically no greenhouse emissions, if government can deal with the radioactive byproducts. But the not-in-my-back-yard-ism of Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and other politicians has all but killed the waste-disposal project at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain, the site Congress chose in 1987 for a permanent repository. Instead, waste is piling up in the back yards of dozens of communities across the United States, at sites that weren’t designed for long-term storage.
Under existing law, the federal government can’t begin accepting spent nuclear fuel for even an interim storage site in the absence of Yucca or some other permanent repository. So waste continues to accumulate at reactor sites — 72,000 tons so far, three-fourths of it sitting in cooling pools like those that overheated at the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility, threatening Japan with much more radioactive contamination.
This approach is expensive, and it could be riskier than other options. How risky? The NRC says not very, but a federal appeals court last week ruled unanimously that the commission must account more thoroughly for the danger long-term reactor-side storage might pose to power plants and the communities around them.
The Yucca project, which still ought to be saved, is the object of ongoing litigation, and some in the House are trying to restore its funding. But a national blue-ribbon commission on nuclear waste recently pointed out that Congress can do a lot of good in the absence of a final decision on Yucca. Lawmakers should create a new, independent nuclear-waste authority with access to the billions of dollars the government collects from electricity customers to deal with spent fuel. That authority should have the power to develop interim, centralized storage sites that use dry-cask storage, which is safer than cooling pools. At the same time, it should apply a new method of siting permanent disposal projects — more than one will probably be needed — and include local officials in the process.
There are risks to this approach. Interim storage sites could theoretically operate safely for decades, reducing the perceived need for a permanent repository. Assuming the nuclear-waste authority has the independence to overcome that obstacle, obtaining local consent at sites geologically appropriate for permanent disposal won’t be easy. Still, the blue-ribbon commission’s plan is better than the worst of all options: continuing to allow all that waste to just pile up.