During the half century that nuclear energy has been in use, U.S. reactors have produced some 70,000 tons of spent fuel, most of which lies cooling in pools of water at power plants across the country.
This is far from the end of the road for the used fuel rods, which will remain radioactive for thousands of years. The plan is to put them into enormous steel-and-concrete casks that can eventually be entombed in a deep, sturdy repository -- specifically, as Congress decreed in 1987, Yucca Mountain in Nevada.
That plan has long been delayed, however, as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has led Nevadans in a fight against having the burial site 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas. In 2009, President Barack Obama lent them a hand by halting the project, then cutting funding for it. Yucca Mountain is “not a workable option,” Obama declared, despite taxpayers having already invested $15 billion in it, and despite the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s safety review being incomplete.
A federal court has now ordered the NRC to finish that review. Good idea. However, it’s hardly a guarantee that Yucca Mountain will be developed into a nuclear-waste repository. There’s a chance that the review will find the site unsafe. Plus, Nevada will no doubt maintain its intransigence. And even if it’s approved, Yucca wouldn’t open for 15 more years. The problem will remain, with stores of spent fuel continuing to soak in water at U.S. power plants.
Fortunately, bipartisan legislation just introduced in the Senate by Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon and Republican Lisa Murkowski of Alaska addresses these issues. Based on the work of a White House panel, it would create a better, more coherent strategy for handling spent nuclear fuel. For one, it would build one or more short-term storage facilities for “priority waste” -- the fuel still left at plants that have closed or are about to, such as the Vermont Yankee facility -- and start the search for another permanent disposal site. This is critical regardless of whether Yucca Mountain is developed: The growing inventory of spent fuel will soon amount to more than could fit inside Yucca.
What’s more, it would make site selection follow a “consent-based” approach. Communities would be encouraged to volunteer to host a site, perhaps in return for generous federal funding for local public works and public services related to nuclear waste storage. Such a voluntary approach has worked in Europe, and also in Carlsbad, New Mexico, home to a storage place for largely low-level radioactive waste from nuclear weapons. Suffice it to say that this was not the approach taken with the Yucca development.
The legislation would also ensure that funding be set aside for fuel storage. Right now, the $750 million a year that the Department of Energy collects from nuclear-plant operators for the purpose of dealing with spent fuel gets tossed into the federal pot, where politicians can direct how it is spent. (Reid has used this tactic to stall work on Yucca Mountain.) The Senate bill would create a separate fund in the Treasury for the money -- as well as a separate agency for overseeing the management of nuclear waste.
There is room for improvement. Three-fourths of all spent fuel rods are still in water. The legislation could do more to specify their care and treatment. In an ideal world, most of the fuel would be placed in 20-foot-tall casks that are protected from fire and easily transported. This is an expensive job -- each cask costs about $1 million -- but it’s one that the federal government should undertake, particularly because it has already collected $35 billion from the nuclear industry to deal with spent fuel.
It’s a good thing that the Yucca Mountain saga appears to be inching toward resolution. For those who believe, as we do, that nuclear power is an essential component of America’s energy future, this chapter’s close will be wasted if it doesn’t mark the beginning of a wider effort to devise a sound strategy for nuclear waste.
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