Mountain of ... bluster


President Barack Obama's decision to put the kibosh on the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository has been a favorite punching bag for House Republicans in recent weeks, thanks in part to the debacle at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi power plant stoking fears over the safety of nuclear waste stored at more than 100 temporary sites around in the country (map). “It is unconscionable for the Obama administration to squander three decades of bipartisan collaboration, breakthrough scientific research, and billions of taxpayer dollars, all for what the GAO has determined to be political calculations," Energy and Commerce Committee leaders Fred Upton (R-MI) and John Shimkus (R-IL) proclaimed in a joint statement Friday. "This administration should be listening to the nuclear scientists, not political scientists, on matters as serious as our nuclear future."

Road to Yucca MountainUpton and Shimkus were referring to a lengthy document (pdf), released last week by the Government Accountability Office,  which concluded that the Department of Energy shut down the project for policy reasons, rather than technical ones, and did so in a way that would make it exceedingly difficult and expensive to restart should it be necessary to do so. "The Secretary’s judgment," the DOE apparently wrote to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in its request to stop the application, "is not that Yucca Mountain is unsafe or that there are flaws in the license application, but rather that it is not a workable option and that alternatives will better serve the public interest.”

But even if Yucca's shutdown was politically motivated (Obama's promise to do so is undoubtedly part of why he was able to take Nevada, where the repository would have been located, in the 2008 presidential election), lawmakers would do good to remember that its selection was overtly political as well. (And not, as Upton and Shimkus assert, determined simply through happy, hand-holding collaboration and breakthrough scientific research). In her 2009 HCN feature, "Mountain of Doubt," contributing editor Judith Lewis Mernit did a great job summing it up:

Fearing the collapse of a faltering (nuclear) industry, Congress in 1982 drew up the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, ordering the Energy Department to open a nuclear waste storage facility within 16 years. But Congress did nothing in that time except select Yucca Mountain as the only location worth studying -- not least because the federal government already controls 90 percent of Nevada's land -- delaying until 2002 to give the site final approval and allow the Energy Department to at long last apply for a license...

Yucca Mountain, as New York Times reporter Matthew Wald recently joked to (the Bush Administration's top shepherd of the project, Ward) Sproat, "was chosen by some of the best geologists in the U.S. Senate," many of whom were rushing home for Christmas break when they ruled. Even Sproat calls the site selection "a technically informed political decision."

There were more than a few technical reasons to look beyond Yucca as well, Lewis Mernit continues:

Six hundred earthquakes have rumbled under Yucca Mountain in the last 20 years, one as great as magnitude 5.6. A panel of scientists put the chances of "igneous disruption" in the ridgeline's ancient field of volcanoes at one in 6,250 over the next 10,000 years — which seems low until you consider that, in most of the United States, the probability of a volcano erupting is zero.

If anything, though, shouldn't the disaster at Fukushima drive home the foolishness of putting all of our waste -- tens of thousands of tons of it from 104 nuclear reactors  -- in one potentially seismically unstable place just 90 miles from Las Vegas, especially when that place is supposed to provide safe storage for 1 million years? And why should Nevada, which has already had the unfortunate privilege of  hosting the nation's nuclear bombing range, bear the burden of its  nuclear waste problem?

In this context, the recently released draft recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future make some sense. The commission, convened by the Obama Administration to identify possible solutions for the nation's nuclear waste problem in the wake of the Yucca closure, suggested that storing waste for 100 years or so at one or more above-ground interim sites, located regionally and perhaps closer to the reactors that produced the waste, could dispel some of the political backlash, buy time to find a more suitable long term site and open up the possibility of reprocessing and reusing the waste down the line. "We may decide later that it's an energy source and we want to do something with it," commissioner Ernest Moniz, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told ScienceInsider.

But regardless of what eventually shakes out, as Lewis-Mernit observed back in 2009, setting a course for what might be dubbed "Life After Yucca" is going to require a Herculean effort, and Hercules-sized stacks of cash:

...To maintain (nuclear power in the) energy mix will require replacing and retrofitting the country's aging fleet of reactors, and to support those efforts without the prospect of Yucca Mountain, the new administration will have to act quickly to locate a waste storage project. That won't be easy. Congress will need to throw out all previous laws regarding nuclear waste disposal and start the site selection process from scratch. The Energy Department will need to tear up decades of contracts with nuclear energy providers and negotiate new terms for temporary storage. Legislators would then set to work investigating sites: Morris, Ill., where the government once experimented with a nuclear waste reprocessing operation? Oak Ridge, Tenn., the once-secret hub of the Manhattan Project? Those states would undoubtedly mount opposition of their own, just as they did in the 1980s...

Would short term regional storage proposals really fare any better? Maybe not. As 24/7 Wall St. blogger Paul Ausick astutely observes, "No US politician ever lost an election by opposing a nuclear waste dump."

Sarah Gilman is HCN's associate editor

Image courtesy Flickr user Cindy Syms Parr.

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