The ongoing crisis at Japan’s damaged nuclear power plants raises the issue of whether our own radioactive materials are vulnerable to similar catastrophes. The states of South Carolina and Washington will argue today before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia that the Obama administration had no authority to order the closing of the Yucca Mountain disposal facility in Nevada. That project’s purpose had been to move American plants away from the radioactive waste-storage model used in the land of the rising sun.
The worst of the radiation from the Fukushima Dai-ichi facility is not emanating from the reactor cores, but from pools where spent nuclear fuel rods are stored. Most spent fuel in the United States is stored in the same fashion or in dry casks located on-site at the nation’s 104 nuclear power facilities. Those were meant to be temporary depots that would be emptied when what was supposed to be the permanent storage site, Yucca Mountain, was completed. Instead, President Obama, with the strong encouragement of Nevada’s Democratic Sen. Harry Reid, has spent the past two years dumping obstacles in the path of the facility’s opening.
Even a left-leaning state like Washington is upset by this last-minute “not in my backyard” maneuver. The Evergreen State has been counting on the new repository to accept its 53 million gallons of high-level radioactive waste now stored at the Department of Energy’s 586-square-mile Hanford facility in the southeastern corner of the state. That was the reason behind Uncle Sam’s spending $12 billion to construct a vitrification plant at Hanford, which will convert radioactive sludge into glass logs specifically designed to fit into Yucca Mountain’s storage vaults. If the repository is abandoned, Washington state contends, the expensive plant would be for naught and the Hanford site would be back to square one with no permanent nuclear storage solution.
President Obama fulfilled a campaign promise to his radical supporters by zeroing out funding for Yucca Mountain in his fiscal 2011 budget last year. Then his energy secretary, Steven Chu, tasked nuclear energy backers with finding a different disposal solution. A Chu-appointed blue-ribbon panel is halfway through a two-year search for an alternative, but it is unlikely to yield results because the findings must pass muster with an anti-nuke left.
The O Force is pursuing an unrealistic energy policy that is free of nuclear power and anything that emits carbon dioxide. Hampering domestic nuclear power by exacerbating the spent-fuel dilemma and oil production by bans on drilling, the administration is counting on utopian energy sources that stop working when the day is calm or night arrives. The thought of wind- and solar-powering the future may fuel the dreams of greens - and fill the pocket of Mr. Obama’s friends - but neither can actually power a modern society.
Congress enacted a law that spent billions to build the Yucca Mountain project. The president cannot, on his own, ignore that statute. In light of Japan’s recent tragedy, lawmakers ought to persuade the administration to reconsider its position on nuclear waste disposal.