- - Thursday, May 11, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Government waste is bad; radioactive government waste is badder. Billions of dollars were spent on a nuclear-waste repository in Nevada and it sits abandoned. President Trump should cut out the regulatory obstruction and redeem one of the most embarrassing boondoggles ever, the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository.

This week the roof of an underground tunnel filled with railroad cars loaded with radioactive waste collapsed at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation east of Seattle, forcing evacuation of workers while emergency workers tested for contamination by the release of dangerous particles into the air. Fortunately, no one was exposed to contamination, but storage at more than 100 similar makeshift locations around the country pose a deadly accident waiting to happen.

Yucca Mountain was constructed to prevent that. The storage site, a warren of underground tunnels beneath a Nevada mountain range, is largely finished and awaits only government approval to begin accepting nuclear waste held in temporary dumps at nuclear facilities like Hanford.

The construction of the repository, undertaken 30 years ago, has cost more than $12 billion. It was designed to hold 150 million pounds of spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste, but collects only dust, thanks to opposition by Harry Reid, for a long time a power in the U.S. Senate. In return for backing his election campaign in 2008, Barack Obama promised to cancel Yucca Mountain if elected. He was, and he did.

Now with Mr. Obama and Mr. Reid without power or authority, President Trump has an opportunity to revive the project and salvage billions of expended dollars. At his confirmation hearing, Energy Secretary Rick Perry wouldn’t speculate about the future of Yucca Mountain, promising only to “work closely” with Congress for a solution. He won’t have to spend time polling Nevada’s congressional delegation. In the tradition of “not in my backyard” politics, the congressmen claim Yucca Mountain is a danger to Las Vegas, 90 miles south of the mountain.

The Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that radiation emitted from the tunnels would remain within safe levels for the next million years, but Steven Chu, the Obama administration secretary of Energy, declared in 2009 that “Yucca Mountain as a repository is off the table.” With no permanent disposal site, nuclear waste is stored in temporary locations closer to population centers and vulnerable to terrorist attack.

The Energy Department undertook a study in 2015 to assess the costs of building two alternative waste sites — one for commercial use and one for defense waste. In January, the Government Accountability Office panned the Department of Energy’s cost-benefit analysis of the two-site proposal, calling it “unreliable because it didn’t account for billions of dollars in significant costs.” The report recommended trying again.

Under the Obama-Reid scheme, a project of national necessity became a black hole in the Nevada wasteland. This spendthrift philosophy lingers over the department’s calculation of alternative site costs. It’s sometimes easy to assign charges to someone else’s expense account.

Mr. Trump doesn’t hesitate to remind Americans that in his earlier life as a billionaire developer he mastered the practice of completing projects under budget and on time. With the Hanford accident as impetus, the president should direct Mr. Perry to seek final approval from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to start filling that hole in the desert.

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