As America’s nuclear power stations begin to show their age, the problem of what to do with all their waste has become much more pressing. We have the prospect of a long-term solution in the geologic disposal site of Yucca Mountain, but courts and the Obama administration have thrown up needless roadblocks. It is time for Congress to untangle this mess and open Yucca Mountain now.
About 69,000 tons of used nuclear fuel has built up around the nation in the past four decades, with more than 2,500 tons of additional waste generated annually, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute. Nuclear facilities are built with on-site storage facilities - large, steel-lined vaults filled with water - intended to hold nuclear waste products until the federal government disposes of them. But these were only created as a temporary measure. By law, the deadline for the government to begin accepting used fuel from these nuclear sites was in 1998.
It should come as no surprise, then, that 61 of the nation’s 104 nuclear facilities have already used up all of their available storage space, with seven more scheduled to run out of space this year. In addition, the federal government’s breach of contract has led to nuclear companies receiving hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer money in compensation. More lawsuits are on the way.
Lacking other options, nuclear plants are storing radioactive waste in “dry casks,” large above-ground concrete structures. Rods of nuclear waste each emit 1 millirem of radiation per hour, heating the concrete walls of the dry casks to 90 degrees Fahrenheit. “They’re essentially out in the air,” admits Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) spokesman David McIntyre.
As the oldest dry casks enter their third decade of use, NRC’s response has been simply to loosen the legal safety standards that prohibit their long-term operation. In December, the agency doubled the amount of time that nuclear rods can be stored on-site from 30 years to 60. The underlying justification for the decision was that, according to Mr. McIntyre, the casks have been “working really well.” In essence, the federal government is trying to turn what should be a short-term solution into a long-term one.
New York, Connecticut and Vermont filed suit on Feb. 15, objecting to this ruling, claiming that the NRC had violated federal laws mandating site-by-site reviews of health, safety and environmental hazards. According to New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, any “studies” that the organization conducted “don’t comply with federal laws that govern environmental impact statements.” He added that, by NRC standards, “I could say I conducted a study by wandering around the plant.”
High-level nuclear waste needs to go somewhere. The only question is where, although this need not be a question at all - the Obama administration has politicized its way out of a sound answer that’s already consumed $13 billion in taxpayer funds.
Yucca Mountain would consolidate the nuclear waste from 104 short-term storage sites into one highly secure location. The evidence in favor of the Yucca Mountain site is overwhelming: The desolate location is arid, volcanically inert and not prone to seismic activity. The Environmental Protection Agency imposed a 10,000-year safety standard on radiation containment at the proposed facility, and it has passed every test relating to that standard. A November 2004 article in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute found that Yucca Mountain “performs brilliantly in thousands of hypothetical situations, always coming out below the limits set for radiation exposure.”
However, that same year, a federal appeals court replaced this standard with one of its own crafting - 1 million years - and the Obama administration, exhibiting an anti-nuclear bias, used this decision to mothball Yucca Mountain. Then, on Feb. 17, a suppressed NRC report came to light showing that Yucca Mountain fulfilled the million-year radiation standard as well. (NRC administrators had removed the executive summary conclusions, which likely contain statements that are inconsistent with Obama administration policies.)
The president’s new budget completely cuts out funding for the Yucca Mountain facility, which puts us back at square one in the search for a long-term nuclear-waste solution. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Finland, Germany and Sweden are developing deep geologic reserve programs with great success, and the United Kingdom is exploring a similar idea.
If Congress is serious about nuclear energy forming part of an “all-of-the-above” plan for energy in the future, Yucca Mountain has to be part of the mix. Lawmakers should demand the release of the full NRC report and tell the president to stop dithering on safely storing the nation’s nuclear waste.
Iain Murray is vice president and Dennis Grabowski a research associate at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.