“If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there,” the Cheshire Cat said in Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland.” The inscrutable feline might have been referring to the tortuous path of U.S. nuclear energy policy over the past 30 years. Unsurprisingly, President Obama has been equally ambiguous in his recent dealings with the nuclear industry.
On Tuesday, the president announced with great fanfare loan guarantees worth $8.3 billion for new reactors in Georgia. The act ostensibly makes good on his recent State of the Union pledge to renew federal support for nuclear power as one component in the drive toward national energy independence.
The industry has been hampered by reams of regulatory red tape demanded by environmentalists in the wake of the 1979 Three Mile Island incident, which effectively ended new plant construction. Loan guarantees could be instrumental in helping the industry raise capital for what has been a very risky investment, but there is more to the story.
Mr. Obama’s budget proposal also zeroed out funding for Nevada’s Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, leaving America with no long-term solution for storing spent nuclear fuel. Without a storage solution, there is no way forward for nuclear power. Weighing these two contradictory moves, the president appears to be urging the industry onward along the familiar path to nowhere.
As with any manufacturing process, nuclear power relies on a functional production chain. If one link in the chain breaks, production stops. Currently, spent nuclear fuel is stored in temporary facilities at 14 shuttered reactors around the country. Yucca Mountain is a nearly completed, $9 billion warren of tunnels burrowed beneath a desolate mountain range in southern Nevada. It was meant to be a permanent site providing safe nuclear waste storage for 10,000 years. By defunding the project, the president has broken the production chain for future nuclear power. With no solution for long-term nuclear waste disposal, significant new plant construction isn’t likely.
The bureaucracy continues to spin its wheels, however. Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced on Jan. 29 the formation of a blue-ribbon commission to “provide recommendations for developing a safe, long-term solution to managing the nation’s used nuclear fuel and nuclear waste.” The 15-member panel, to be led by Washington solons Lee Hamilton and Brent Scowcroft, has two years to dream up a bright idea for disposal that the best minds have failed to conjure during the past 30.
At a Feb. 4 Senate hearing on the Energy Department’s budget, Sen. Richard Burr, North Carolina Republican, questioned the wisdom of writing off Yucca Mountain as a useless, $9 billion hole in the ground and starting over with the issue of waste disposal. “We have to pick a path and go for it,” he said. “We either know something, and we should do it, or we are going to kick this can down the road.”
Kicking the nuclear can down the road is exactly what the Obama administration is doing. Two years of study will be followed, in all likelihood, by additional years of discussion and prevarication. Mr. Chu told the senators “we have decades” to decide on a solution.
None of this is surprising. The Obama administration has shown itself to be ideologically aligned with the environmental left, which has never budged from its hostile stance toward nuclear energy. As long as Yucca Mountain is off the table, the president’s pronouncements of support for nuclear energy are not credible. His message to the nuclear industry: Hearken to the Cheshire Cat - and happy trails.