Responsibility? Yucca Choice Squanders $8B Investment

USA Today Editorial -- March 17, 2009
We usually applaud politicians who keep their campaign promises, but one we were hoping President Obama would forget was his pledge to end the 22-year effort to build a nuclear waste repository inside remote Yucca Mountain in Nevada.
Like it or not, the nation needs nuclear power as a carbon-free bridge to a future in which wind, solar and other options will power computers and TVs and charge plug-in hybrid cars. It makes sense to dispose of spent nuclear fuel in a single place instead of at more than 100 nuclear plants around the country, where it is now. Yucca was the presumed central location until the president's "new era of responsibility" budget would eliminate virtually all funding. Never mind that environmental objections to the project have long seemed strained and the logic for going forward strong.
Now the government has to find some other way to fulfill its contract with nuclear utilities to take the waste off their hands. Since 1983, the government has levied a fee on every kilowatt hour of nuclear-generated electricity - guess who's been paying that, ratepayers - to finance a national disposal site. The feds have collected about $30 billion and spent almost $8 billion on the Yucca Mountain site. So much for that investment.
During the presidential campaign, candidate Obama said he wanted no new nuclear plants until there was some place to store the waste, a stance that seems ominous now that he's killed off the only central disposal site. When we asked the Energy Department if that means no new nuclear plants until there's a successor to Yucca Mountain, we got a carefully hedged non-answer: "The president remains committed to resolving key issues including nuclear waste, non-proliferation and plant security."
Yucca's demise shouldn't be an excuse to delay new nuclear plants. Storing spent fuel at existing plant sites is a second-best solution, but it's a safe enough stopgap until the nation agrees on a permanent disposal site. Once spent fuel has cooled enough to move, it's typically stored outdoors in steel pods that weigh 100 tons or more, emitting little radiation and virtually impossible to destroy or steal.
The president and the nuclear industry now want a group of experts to convene to decide what to do next. An idea to revisit is reprocessing spent fuel, which President Carter banned out of security concerns that seem much less compelling 30 years later. Reprocessing allows fuel to be re-used and shrinks the ultimate amount of spent fuel - but what's left still has to go somewhere.
One potential site is in New Mexico, which in the past decade has quietly accepted more than 7,000 shipments of radioactive materiall from the nation's nuclear weapons facilities and buried them in a salt bed almost half a mile below the desert in the southeastern part of the state. By law, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant can't accept spent fuel from nuclear power plants, but some state officials have agitated for a second facility there as a backup for Yucca. It might be an alternative worth pursuing.
Killing Yucca is a big political win for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and other Nevada lawmakers who've long opposed the storage site. But that victory empowers not-in-my-backyard politicians in every state to dig in their heels. And, whether it's waste dumps or wind farms or oil refineries or air routes, they do - the national interest be damned.
When Obama lifted the ban on stem cell research last week, his press secretary said the president made it clear that "politics should not drive science." Unfortunately, that's exactly what happened here.