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Is it Safe? More on Obama, McCain and Yucca Mountain


One of our astute readers noticed that the Obama ad we posted the other day unfairly dinged McCain for not supporting transport of used nuclear fuel through Arizona. Jon Ralston over the the Las Vegas Sun takes up the cudgel. Here’s a fuller context, quoted by Ralston:

[Sam] Shad[, host of Nevada Newsmakers]: “Would you be comfortable with nuclear waste coming through Arizona on its way, you know going through Phoenix, on its way to Yucca Mountain?”

McCain: “No, I would not. No, I would not. I think it can be made safe.”

(We merged Ralston’s version a little to fully contextualize the quote.) The Obama ad doesn’t include that last line, and Ralston assumes McCain misheard the question as asking him whether he would object to fuel being transported through Arizona. Fair enough, though a little ambiguous – one could say the missing line indicates McCain is playing the same “safe” card as does Obama.

And there’s more along those line. Ralston notes that McCain might be hedging a bit now that the state and its five electors are in play:

Now [McCain] is trying to fudge a little by saying [Yucca Mountain] has to meet “the environmental and safety standards that are necessary,” as he told KLAS-TV’s Mark Sayre over the weekend. That’s the same “sound science” sop — and a meaningless one — President Bush and many others have used.

Not to mention Obama. Whether you like Obama’s politics or not, McCain does seem to be co-opting his competitor’s views since they play better to the intended audience. (To be scrupulously fair, the whole offshore drilling kerfluffle showed that Obama can play the same game – maybe it’s a politician thing.)

Truly it is frustrating. Yucca Mountain may be just too vulnerable to scare tactics and misinformation for any politician to state the plain truth: Yucca Mountain, stuffed to its geologic gills with dry casks, is not a danger to Nevadans or anyone else. Shipping nuclear fuel to it endangers no one and is not vulnerable to terrorist attack.

(Yes, we’re linking to NEI Fact Sheets. They’re pretty darn thorough –in fact,  if you think there’s a problem with any of them, please let us know in comments or privately. We really do aim to make them complete and accurate – NEI would have no credibility if it, you know, lied or spun.)

Let’s let Ralston make his point:

So with McCain, you pretty much know what’s going to happen on Yucca and with Obama it’s a gamble — a microcosm of the election, from some perspectives at least.

Hmm. Frankly, we think Ralston demonstrated the opposite – Obama said what he said and has not changed a bit while McCain is nosing away from his original position. It’s interesting to see the narratives that develop around politicians solidify even when events contradict them.

Laurence Oliver in Marathon Man. Odd that an actor with perhaps the most lauded career in the 20th century should be remembered best by many people for a single line in (an admittedly hair-raising) movie scene: “is it safe?”


Rod Adams said…

While I agree that there is no danger associated with either storing used fuel at Yucca Mountain or in shipping that fuel there, I still do not understand why the industry continues to make such an issue about moving the fuel from where it is today.

There is no danger associated with storing the fuel on site and it is certainly cheaper to leave it alone compared to shipping it thousands of miles away through often reluctant shipping points.

Why bother, especially since part of the shipping route requires the construction of a specialized rail line whose cost will be entirely born by the nuclear industry?
David Bradish said…

It costs about $10M per year per plant to operate an ISFSI (independent spent fuel storage installation). For operating plants, $10M is nothing, but for the 28 shutdown plants in the U.S., it's quite a bit of money. Especially, since the shutdown plants aren't bringing in anymore revenue.

Now multiply the $10M per year by at least 12 years (2020 is the estimated opening date of Yucca), then we're talking hundreds of millions of dollars wasted by the utilities just for the shutdown plants.

One of NEI's first priorities for managing used fuel is to consolidate it for interim storage. This will substantially alleviate many of the costs wasted to operate an ISFSI. The next thing we want to see is reprocessing. Then we want to see permanent disposal of the waste products that can't be used after reprocessing. A Yucca Mountain is still needed.

Besides the costs, progress towards YM adds to the perception that the industry is taking care of its “waste” issue. Not only that, there are several states like CA and IL that have laws against building new nuclear plants unless the U.S. has a permanent disposal site.

Like you noted, the safety and security of used fuel is not the issue. It’s politics and economics. As well, taxpayers are ending up paying for the government’s failure to take the used fuel by 1998 as designated by law. The utilities are suing the government (and winning) to make up the "damaged" costs spent for the ISFSIs. So you have a situation where all of the used fuel could have been paid by the industry, but because the government can’t get its act together, the taxpayers are ending up paying part of the costs (could end up in the billions of dollars).

These are all part of the reasons why we continue to push YM.
Rod Adams said…

Let me offer some thoughts on two of your comments:

"Then we want to see permanent disposal of the waste products that can't be used after reprocessing. A Yucca Mountain is still needed."

Right now, there are known ways to use most of the byproducts in used fuel rods. Who knows what kinds of technology will be developed in the future to make use of the unique physical properties of the isotopes produced by fission?

Once the heavy metals have been taken out, the volume of what is left is small enough to store in a tiny space. Why spend money to ship it all the way to Nevada, especially if there is resistance to that effort? The industry can claim that it is storing valuable material for such time as it becomes economical to use it.

"Besides the costs, progress towards YM adds to the perception that the industry is taking care of its “waste” issue."

Here is where NEI is tone deaf. The applicant for the license at Yucca Mountain is the United States Department of Energy, not "the industry". If there is any progress made, it will be viewed as "the government" solving the problem - even though you and I know that the industry has paid their fees.

One of the most effective clubs that the anti-nuclear movement uses against nuclear power is the fact that the industry keeps turning to the government to arrange solutions. Sure, I know that other energy sources use government funds and subsidies, but they seem to be better at keeping that off of the front burner.

The nuclear industry can declare its industrial independence and make the case to the public that it is taking responsibility for its own byproducts (and insurance pools) and remove that weapon from the quickly shrinking arsenal of the anti-nuclear movement.

Get out in front and work to change the existing laws that have given the anti-nuclear movement the political weapons needed to constipate progress in the industry. Humans wrote the laws, humans can change the laws.

(Aside - in an industry that already produces product worth between $40 and $80 Billion per year, avoiding new growth opportunities because of worries about a few hundred million in annual byproduct storage costs is pretty silly.)

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