Friday, March 13, 2009

For more than two decades, the Congress, the president and the sprawling federal bureaucracy have worked to find a safe place to store the waste of nuclear reactors. Yucca Mountain, a remote formation in the deserts of Nevada, was the chosen site. Now President Obama, bowing to the demands of a fraction of anti-nuclear activists, has thrown 22 years of hard work up in the air.

Here’s the back story. Republicans and Democrats have long agreed on a process to select a site and store the nation’s radioactive wastes. Congress passed legislation that all but assured that Yucca Mountain in Nevada would be the site of the nation’s nuclear waste storage in 1987 and voted decisively to store nuclear waste at the site in 2002. As a result, some $13.5 billion of tax dollars and 22 years of effort were spent with the settled understanding that Yucca Mountain became the sole focus of plans for storing radioactive waste.

Now, in what seems like a flare of adolescent temper, the Obama administration said forget it. All funding for the site has been cut in the 2010 budget except for a pittance to handle administrative paperwork. The new energy secretary, Steven Chu, told a Senate hearing the site is no longer an option.

The Obama administration released no alternative plans to move and store the nation’s radioactive wastes - leaving no alternative to the status quo. So nearly 60,000 tons of used reactor fuel, accumulated over decades of power generation, will remain stored at commercial nuclear power plants. The nation’s 104 commercial power reactors create 2,000 more tons of spent fuel per year, which is being held in pools and aboveground concrete containers at reactor sites.

Though the federal government is obligated by law to accept the spent fuel, it generally does not. Which brings up the obvious question: Is Mr. Obama living up to the law by taking the action he did? We will leave that to finer legal minds than ours, but it is an issue worth examining.

It is true that Yucca Mountain, or any site, is a 10,000-year decision due to the radioactive life of uranium. Any storage decision must be made carefully, as geological conditions change over millennia. While Nevada, home of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, ranks third among states in seismic activity, the U.S. Department of Energy has concluded that seismic and tectonic effects will not significantly affect storage at Yucca Mountain. An engineered barrier system would provide substantial protection from any water seepage.

“We’ve spent billions of dollars and many years preparing for Yucca Mountain to be our nation’s waste site,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Alaska Republican, said recently. “Closing Yucca Mountain sends an unmistakable signal to nuclear developers that they might not have a place to store their waste, making them less willing to develop new facilities.”

And sadly that may be exactly the intent of this administration. Is the Obama administration so stuck in the 1970s “China Syndrome” mentality that it cannot see the environmental benefits and energy independence offered by the next genration of nuclear power - which is also lavishly funded in the same budget that cuts off funding to Yucca Mountain storage? Or is it more likely that the president is still acting like a senator and trying to satisfy every competing interest group that appears before him?

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