For 30 years, the Federal Government has been studying, debating, and procrastinating on the permanent storage of nuclear waste. According to Secretary of Energy Perry, there is over 70,000 tons of nuclear waste that is stored at 120 sites in 39 states. That is clear evidence of irresponsibility. The time has come to cut the Gordian Knot either with a scalpel or meat ax.
The history of nuclear waste disposal goes back not 30 years but 60 when the National Academies of Science recommended that the best disposal would be in a deep rock formation. There has been no study since then that has changed that recommendation. DOE began studying Yucca Mountain in 1978. President Reagan, based on reports covering about 10 years of study selected three sites for intensive evaluation and in 1987 Congress directed DOE to consider only Yucca Mountain. Yucca Mountain is an abandoned nuclear test site that has no value besides the planned storage of nuclear waste. The quagmire of politics and federal arrogance and procrastination have been the main obstacles to moving forward.
It is understandable why Nevada objects. No state wants to be known as the nation’s nuclear waste capital. But, the alternative of continuing to store waste at nuclear energy facilities is far worse, especially given the growing threat of terrorist attacks. There may not be any good and politically acceptable options but in that case, the least worse is clearly the best.
The outlook for nuclear power is not encouraging and more facilities are closing because of cost and politics, especially the politics of subsidized renewables. Electric utilities simply are unwilling to take the economic and political risks associated with building and operating nuclear facilities. Low natural gas prices, which are likely to persist for a very long time, make its future much brighter than nuclear.
As our nation becomes even more of a service economy, the demand for reliable and affordable electricity continues to grow. Although environmental advocates and a number of states are pushing for greater reliance on alternatives, their future is tied primarily to continued subsidies and mandates. Without those, it is doubtful that many utilities would make them the cornerstone of their power generating capacity. Since subsidies are likely to be reduced or eliminated as the government confronts serious budget issuesand the embarrassment of growing crony capitalism, the real future of power generation is either nuclear or natural gas.
The outlook for nuclear power will not improve until its cost is substantially reduced and the waste disposal dilemma is resolved. The fact is that Yucca Mountain is a safe solution and it needs to be used to store the existing waste from 120 less safe sites unless some other state with deep geological formations is willing to accept waste storage. There may be no economic incentives that would cause a state to step forward but nothing is lost in trying.
Since the Yucca Mountain facility has no other use because of the prior nuclear tests, the problem, and it is a major one, is political opposition by Nevada. It may be that there is nothing the Federal Government can do now to reduce that opposition but a good faith effort should be made by engaging the state’s leaders, political and public while exploring the option of another, more willing state. The route to common ground is not easy but trying is certainly better than the status quo. If such an effort fails, the federal government should move forward on the process to begin using the Yucca Mountain for some period of time while exploring a range of alternatives for a permanent facility. Nevada could receive financial payments that would significantly escalate if the agreed upon storage period was exceeded without an alternative solution being adopted.
Until there is a politically viable solution to waste storage, no new nuclear plants should be approved and the federal government should take ownership of all commercial nuclear waste. That would relieve utilities, and tax payers, from the continued cost of storage and protection.