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Back to and Away from Yucca Mountain

Generally speaking, any viable solution for used nuclear fuel deserves attention. The Blue Ribbon Commission went for interim storage units and a permanent repository, aiming to avoid the kerfluffle over Yucca Mountain by suggesting that these sites be consent-based – that is, the federal government and/or interested operators get the site approved by local communities and states. This process wasn’t used in choosing Yucca Mountain back in the 80s and look where that got us. Opposing the repository became as much an article of political faith in Nevada as protecting the Chesapeake Bay is in Maryland, with no particular partisan difference. But that’s not the end of the story

The release of the final two volumes of the Safety Evaluation Report for the Yucca Mountain project, which was court-ordered, found Yucca Mountain a sound choice for a repository. Hands in the air for Yucca Mountain! But actually using the site, although dictated by the Nuclear Waste Act, is still up to the federal government and the Obama administration has shown little interest in pursuing it. As long as Nevada’s four electoral votes remain important in Presidential politics, thus will it (probably) be for the foreseeable future.

But that doesn’t mean pressure cannot be brought to bear.

For decades, the plan was to open a permanent, geologically isolated storage facility in Yucca Mountain, Nev., in which canisters of dry waste would be stored behind layers of rock and titanium barriers. The federal government spent more than $15 billion researching and developing the site. Until, that is, not-in-my-backyard opposition from Nevada leaders such as Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D) prevailed. In 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama promised to pull the plug on the Yucca project. After Mr. Obama took swing-state Nevada in the presidential election, his Energy Department ended funding.

Actually, I’ve never heard a candidate say otherwise at a Nevada-hosted debate – not the Democrats in 2008 nor the Republicans in 2012.

But why is this Washington Post editorial picking up the theme now?

This means, firstly, that opponents of nuclear power who raise the spectre of radioactive waste haunting humanity hundreds of thousands of years from now wildly exaggerate the difficulty of the problem. Nothing is risk-free, but there are ways to make the risks extremely small. Nuclear power, meanwhile, is likely to play a part in responding to a much more important environmental threat: climate change.

We’d replace “play a part” with “play a super-important part”, and perhaps we’d hesitate to put nuclear energy and climate change on a sliding scale of risk, but all good.

The NRC report’s conclusions also show that Nevadans’ intense opposition to the Yucca project is unreasonable, unambiguously harmful to the country and should end. In a rational world, the NRC’s report would result in Nevadans backing down, Congress restoring funding and the Obama administration pushing Yucca along.

The Post is implying that we don’t live in a rational world, but I’d say most of the decisions that can be detected regarding Yucca Mountain seem to be motivated by pragmatic considerations - not very good ones, but pragmatic.

So, Yucca Mountain should go forward; the consent-based siting is a good idea that should be pursued; maybe another BRC idea to develop an independent government agency to manage used fuel can be developed.

But the bottom line of the Post’s editorial: nuclear energy isn’t going anywhere because it is valuable as a climate change mitigation agent. So let’s get cracking on used fuel. It’s way past time.

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You could consider this post a prologue. This afternoon, NEI and Waste Control Specialists will be hosting a press conference at the National Press Club. WCS is a Texas-based outfit that, as its home page will tell you, “has emerged as the nation’s leading provider of treatment, storage and disposal services for low-level radioactive waste, mixed low-level radioactive waste, and hazardous waste.”

Low-level now, perhaps, but always? Anyway, we’ll check up on this and report back tomorrow. I suspect it’ll be very interesting in light of this discussion.

Comments

Anonymous said…
Interesting that this story and the Feb 9, 2015 NEI news release on the West Texas Interim Waste Facility made no mention of an interim storage facility that actually received an NRC license. That was the Private Fuel Storage facility known as PFS. NEI at best ignored it as an option but more likely than not opposed it. I guess Orin Hatch is no longer important.

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