Yucca Mountain just another wasteThis is a story of the waste of $8 billion, tons of dangerous, radioactive waste and the game of power politics, the kind that President Obama
By: Ann McFeatters, The Dickinson Press
This is a story of the waste of $8 billion, tons of dangerous, radioactive waste and the game of power politics, the kind that President Obama said he would abolish even as he plays with the best of them.
When the world ushered in nuclear power, few gave thought to what would be done with the tons of toxic waste it would generate. The United States, with 104 commercial nuclear power plants, has 56,600 metric tons of waste, plus defense-related waste, enough to cover a football field to a depth of 10 feet. In 25 years, U.S.-generated waste is expected to reach 119,000 metric tons.
In 1978, the Department of Energy began studying the possibility of storing the spent fuel in underground caverns at Yucca Mountain in the Nevada desert, owned by the federal government, instead of having radioactive waste scattered at 121 temporary sites around the country.
There were years of pros and cons. Many communities opposed having radioactive waste carried through their territory on trains bound for Nevada. On the other hand, temporary sites storing such material are not designed to be permanent, and nearby communities could be at risk of contamination.
After 20 years, nearly $8 billion, and the building of a 5-mile underground laboratory, DOE decided the best and safest place in the country to store nuclear waste was deep under Yucca Mountain, where it would not endanger people for as long as it remains radioactive about 1,000 years.
The cost was put at $96 billion, in 2007 dollars, to be paid through 2133 from fees on nuclear power plants under a 1982 law. DOE sought permission from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission last June to build the Yucca Mountain repository, supposed to be operational by 2020.
Given NIMBY (the all-American, not-in-my-backyard mantra), many Nevadans were unhappy, even though the government said there was no danger. (That’s what happens when government first practices to deceive — nobody believes anything it says.) Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the Senate majority leader, vowed to stop the project.
Reid wangled a promise during the campaign that, if elected, Obama would put the kibosh on Yucca even though Obama had received thousands of dollars from pro-Yucca forces in the nuclear industry that are finding it hard to build new plants without a waste repository. (Reid also got Hillary Clinton to promise the same thing if she had been elected.)Without saying anything publicly, Obama proposes in his budget to cut out spending for a permanent site for radioactive nuclear waste. DOE has stopped the Yucca project.
Reid exulted that Obama’s budget “represents a significant and lasting victory in our battle to protect Nevada from becoming the country’s toxic wasteland. I have worked for over two decades with help from our states leaders and thousands of Nevadans to stop Yucca Mountain. President Obama recognizes that the proposed dump threatens the health and safety of Nevadans and millions of Americans, and his commitment to stop this terrible project could not be more clear.”
Thus two decades and $8 billion already spent on Yucca have been largely wasted, and the can has been kicked down the road. The nation has no permanent site for its ever-mounting tons of waste and no plans. Reid said Obama will try to develop a new strategy. After he ends the war in Iraq, solves the global economic crisis and provides affordable health care for all Americans.
The United States has never considered that reprocessing spent fuel, which some other countries do, is viable. Obama, whose own state of Illinois has 11 reactors, may recommend finding another, more willing state or building regional repositories, which would be extremely costly.
A Hollywood movie will probably be made about terrorists taking advantage of improperly stored radioactive waste or a natural disaster at a storage site endangering an entire community. All hell will break lose, with everybody screaming, “Why didn’t the government do something about this!”
— Scripps Howard News Service columnist McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986.