HICKEY & COBB: Utilize Yucca Mountain and save money

Deep storage is the only safe solution for nuclear waste

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Through numerous Democratic and Republican administrations, the preparation of Nevada’s Yucca Mountain as the nation’s designated nuclear repository moved forward toward completion, culminating in the final Department of Energy (DOE) submission of a license application in 2008 to open the site. The state of Nevada, which had consistently opposed the selection of Yucca, vowed to continue its opposition to the site.

The ascension of Nevada Democratic Sen. Harry Reid to the key post of Senate majority leader gave the state significant influence, particularly with the Democratic landslide in 2008 capped by Barack Obama’s election as president. That year, Mr. Obama - aware that Nevada’s five electoral votes were critical in the previous two presidential elections and of Mr. Reid’s key role in achieving his policy objectives should he be elected - promised he would close Yucca and begin a search for a new site. This put Energy Secretary Steven Chu in the difficult position of opposing a project that he had just endorsed two years earlier when he headed up the University of California-Berkeley Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

The Obama administration terminated funding for the repository and plans to shut down the site. What is ironic is that this commitment by Mr. Obama and Mr. Chu derives not from any perceived inadequacies of the Yucca site, but from a nakedly political calculation.

Equally important, albeit less noticed, is the fact that the administration also made a significant shift regarding what had long been deemed a “prudent” storage strategy. For years, the concept called for the permanent storage of the waste - maybe even for a million years.

The Obama administration has wisely reversed that standard and decided that storing the waste would only be necessary for 100 to 120 years. The supposition now is that a scientific breakthrough will be found in that time frame that would enable us to neutralize the nuclear waste. We agree that interim storage is the proper choice and we concur that science will certainly lead to a solution for waste disposal in a relatively short period of time. The only question is why not store the material at Yucca for this short period and provide some economic compensation for the state of Nevada?

After all, here are the two stark choices: (1) Store the material deep underground at Yucca Mountain, a secure military installation 100 miles from any major population center, a site that is already prepared to receive the materials; or (2) leave the dangerous, highly radioactive waste aboveground at some 75 nuclear reactor and defense sites, where it would be within 65 miles of 160 million people.

One has to wonder where the Obama national security team is on this proposition. The Yucca site was selected because of the relative ease in protecting the volatile material. Now with the highly radioactive debris left at so many less-secure sites, there is no doubt that those facilities will become very attractive targets for al Qaeda or other terrorist groups.

Safely storing the waste for an interim period is a major step in the right direction. In many countries, the spent nuclear fuel is being reprocessed, eliminating 94 percent of the waste. Research and experimentation can bring the costs down and measures can be taken to properly control the residue. All that can be done most efficiently at Yucca.

Not moving the nuclear materials to Yucca will increasingly be a very expensive proposition. The courts recently awarded Xcel Energy $100 million to offset the costs of storing waste at only two sites. American utilities are seeking $6.4 billion for storing waste on site, and this cost will only grow. In addition, most observers believe that since the law of the land - the 1982-87 Nuclear Waste Policy Act - specifies Yucca as the nation’s repository, courts will rule closing the site is illegal.

More than $17 billion has been spent to prepare the Yucca Mountain repository for storing nuclear waste. Most Nevadans, contrary to what some would have you believe, favor having the state negotiate with the federal government regarding safety concerns and fiscal compensation. Legislation to revive this alternative should be seriously discussed in the state’s next legislative session and Mr. Obama should reverse his decision.

Pat Hickey is an assemblyman in the Nevada Legislature. Tyrus W. Cobb is a native Nevadan who served as special assistant to President Ronald Reagan for national security affairs.

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