Wednesday, February 24, 2010

So often in politics, what makes the headlines is only half the story. For the other half, you’ve got to do a little digging.

Last week, President Obama announced that the federal government would guarantee $8 billion in loans for the construction of two nuclear power reactors. On the face of it, this represented good news: The nation faces serious energy challenges, and no new nuclear plants have been built in 30 years.

What the president didn’t explain was what his administration planned on doing with the nuclear waste - either the waste produced by these new reactors or the waste we already have in temporary storage facilities in 39 states. He didn’t explain it because, earlier this month, he ditched the only responsible and feasible option this country had for the clean disposal of nuclear waste: the Yucca Mountain Storage Facility in Nevada.

Right now, our office is actively conferring with other governors’ offices, as well as with our state attorney general, to explore all options - including legal options - to prevent the U.S. Department of Energy from closing down the Yucca Mountain project. In fact, our state’s attorney general yesterday began pursuing the legal option.

Let me explain why.

Since the Yucca Mountain site was selected in 1987, the federal government has spent billions of dollars and countless man-hours preparing for the storage project. During the intervening 23 years, presidents and their administrations of both parties have supported the project, and despite the glacial pace of the nuclear storage permitting process and foot-dragging on the part of the Department of Energy, the Yucca Mountain project was on the verge of functioning as a safe and centralized storage facility.

Taxpayers, meanwhile, had invested billions into the project.

Since 1982, the nuclear power industry - and indirectly, the taxpayers of this nation served by power companies - have paid roughly $7 billion into a fund for the purpose of temporarily storing nuclear waste. To date, more than $10 billion has been spent for preparation and construction of a permanent storage site at Yucca Mountain.

Yet after all that, on Feb. 1 of this year Mr. Obama decided to abandon the entire plan. The consequence will be that taxpayers will get nothing - literally nothing - in return.

The administration says it will come up with another plan, and for that purpose it has created a “blue ribbon panel.” But the panel has far more retired executives and former congressmen than scientists sitting on it. It’s fairly evident that a serious plan for the nation’s nuclear waste isn’t at the top of the White House’s agenda. Far more important were the politics of it - namely satisfying Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada who, as Senate majority leader, has the power to ram through the Obama administration’s goals on health care, domestic spending and more - and who just happens to face a difficult re-election race later this year.

Rep. James E. Clyburn, majority whip in the House of Representatives, recently suggested that Congress might fund the project despite the president’s objection. That’s fairly difficult to believe - but even if Congress does continue funding Yucca Mountain, given the staff reductions and relocations already under way, the project’s intellectual infrastructure simply won’t be there to support it.

So, that’s the background behind the president’s announcement that he would commit $8.3 billion worth of federal loan guarantees to the construction of two new nuclear reactors. It may sound like an encouraging sign from this president that he’s willing to promote nuclear power - and for that, at least, I’d give him credit. But behind the scenes, this is nothing more than Chicago-style patronage politics: making decisions to curry favor with “friends” regardless of what’s best for the nation.

Not only is this a broken promise to the taxpayer to the tune of $10 billion, the temporary storage facilities create big risks. There are 121 locations around the country where nuclear waste is stored, and more than 161 million Americans live within 75 miles of a storage site. It certainly creates a quiltwork of targets for those who would want to do us harm, as every storage site is a potential terrorist target.

In short, this is an issue we would all be wise to make a little noise about, lest this backroom deal be sealed. Energy independence and steps away from depending on the Middle East for energy are not Nevada or South Carolina issues - they’re American issues. Air quality and CO2 emissions are not Ohio or Pennsylvania issues, they are American issues.

Walking away from a $10 billion investment and starting all over because of one man’s race for office in Nevada doesn’t make it Harry Reid’s issue or that of the man at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. This is an American taxpayer issue, and I’d ask we make our voices heard.

Mark Sanford, a Republican, is governor of South Carolina.

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