Monday, May 11, 2009

The Chill at Yucca Mountain

mountain So, if Yucca Mountain has been pushed onto a low-flame back burner, what then?

"Legally, it's a mess," explained Richard Stewart, a New York University law professor who has closely followed the project. Noting that nuclear power is the nation's largest energy source that does not emit greenhouse gases, Stewart said he worries that a continuing impasse at Yucca Mountain "could chill options for dealing with climate."

This hasn’t gone unnoticed.

But Yucca isn't dead yet. It has formidable backing in the House and from probably a majority of members of the Senate. Legally, it remains the nation's only approved long-term nuclear waste storage site.

There’s that, though writer John Fialka points out that though Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) does not have the votes to kill Yucca Mountain outright, he can prevent Congress from reactivating it more fully through an unbreakable filibuster.

However, the legal issues remain quite real, with virtually every state with a nuclear plant now in position to sue the federal government; some have already rattled sabers. Keeping Yucca Mountain in a Valdemar-like half-life may cause those sabers to be sheathed.

And then there’s this:

Moreover, he [William Magwood IV, a physicist who directed nuclear programs in the Department of Energy under both former Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush] added, a number of U.S. allies in Europe and Asia are waiting for the United States to lead the way toward solving the nuclear waste problem. Magwood knows this because as a DOE official he took many of his foreign counterparts on tours of Yucca Mountain.

"They had an experience similar to what I have. You go to the top of the mountain, and you realize that you're really in the middle of nowhere. They all wished they had some kind of desolate area like this and wonder why we're having this argument."

We appreciate Magwood’s sentiment, though we don’t consider these comments on point. We suspect international watchers understand that Yucca Mountain has not been attacked on substance; it will be, as it always is, local politics rather than anything the United States does or doesn’t do that will point their way. Other countries would have had to do so anyway if they happen not to have a isolated-mountain-in-the-middle-of-nowhere to use as a repository. (And don’t misunderstand – there are other ways to deal with used fuel. But whatever method –storage at the plants, recycling, smaller regional repositories – is chosen, it has to be codified and, so far, no move to do that has occurred.)

Read the whole thing – a lot there about the politics we haven’t mentioned. Clearly, NIMBY plays a huge role and that makes us wonder whether similar issues will overtake other energy sources, at least in the short term – those windmills need a lot of room to roam.

But the problems addressed by nuclear energy – and renewable energy sources, too, especially as carbon emission control solutions - will likely not recede. Once the pushback to these problems relents, we expect more sensible policymaking to follow. And wouldn’t be surprised to see Yucca Mountain back in the thick of things.

No, no, not Yucca Mountain. If it looked like this, it might actually be an appealing location. Symbolism – it’s all the rage.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

This is what happens when the government is full of lawyers instead of engineers.

/Starvid

Ioannes said...

Starvid is right. Neveda is also being stupid - Yucca could be an economic windfall for that state. Too bad Harry Reid can't be voted out of the Senate. :-(

Anonymous said...

sorry, Ioannes, but anyone who can get themselves elected (& reelected) to the US senate is not 'stupid.'

parochial, pandering, 'blind to the big picture,' self-absorbed, litigious, etc etc, but not 'stupid.'

Ioannes said...

Darn - Anonymous is correct! I stand - er, sit - corrected again!

Red Craig said...

The problem is not with Sen. Reid, a capable, thoughtful individual whose job is representing the views of Nevadans. The problem isn't even with political extremists who spread misinformation and resentment among the people of that state, since that's what such groups do. Rather, the problem comes from irresponsible news organizations that refuse to cover the subject objectively but instead pander to ignorance and superstition.

Anonymous said...

That remark by William Magwood got a good chuckle out of me.

Moreover, he [William Magwood IV, a physicist who directed nuclear programs in the Department of Energy under both former Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush] added, a number of U.S. allies in Europe and Asia are waiting for the United States to lead the way toward solving the nuclear waste problem. Magwood knows this because as a DOE official he took many of his foreign counterparts on tours of Yucca Mountain.That stuff is really embarrassing and delusional, that sorry notion that the US is somehow leading the way on nuclear power, that the rest of the world is waiting with batted breath for the US to move so they can know what is the One True Path.

That notion of "exemplarity" really contaminates the debate, that somehow what the US does at home drives the rest of the world. The whole debate in the US rests on that delusion, in particular that tired trope about "proliferation".

It seems far too often that the US is stuck in a time-warp loop somewhere circa the late 50s or early 60s, when it actually had a near-monopoly on nuclear science and advanced technology. That conceit seems particularly strong with Washington politicians and at the DoE.

That era is over and has been for decades. No one gives a fig about the theological debates in Washington. No one depends on the US for nuclear technology. It's rather the other way around nowadays. Just consider that there isn't a single NSS supplier left under purely American control. Even GE is partnered with Hitachi for its BWRs.

- Friakel Wippans