Our country faces a mounting challenge when it comes to nuclear energy: the safe, long-term disposal of spent fuel from commercial reactors and leftover waste from defense activity. It's a challenge with a decadeslong history.
The U.S. Department of Energy, 32 states, nuclear plant operators and millions of consumers have long counted on spent fuel and defense waste being transported away from reactor sites to a permanent repository. Both bodies of Congress, acting in strong bipartisan fashion, consistently voted to develop the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada and even imposed a fee on power generation to fund it. After spending $15 billion analyzing it, the Department of Energy in 2008 finally filed with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission an application for a license to build and operate the project. Numbering nearly 10,000 pages, the application addressed every imaginable question of safety and environmental protection.
Later that year the tide turned. Then-Sen. Barack Obama promised to do what he could to halt Yucca Mountain. Procedural maneuvers in Congress and at the NRC helped Obama make good on that promise, even though the votes were still there to support the project in the House and the Senate.
Since then, some stakeholders and policymakers have asked, "Why don't we step back from the Yucca Mountain standoff and start looking for an alternative?" Because we share a sense of urgency to resolve the issue, my colleagues and I who have spent years working on this issue have carefully reviewed these ideas.
However, a close look confirms our belief that building a repository at Yucca Mountain would still be the fastest, best and most viable solution.
Conceptually, interim storage seems to solve many challenges. Yet this is only true if it can be sited and developed quickly and inexpensively. There are concerns that trying to implement interim storage will fall short of expectations.
Choosing a site for a nuclear waste storage facility, either permanent or interim, may begin on optimistic terms, but political opposition builds over time, making the process neither simple nor swift. For example, Nevada embraced spent fuel storage in the 1970s and strong support remains in the communities around Yucca Mountain, but opposition has grown within the state. In 1997, the nuclear industry established a consortium, Private Fuel Storage, to develop a private interim storage facility in partnership with the Goshute Indians in Utah. As statewide opposition grew, the project became politically unworkable; the consortium quietly asked the NRC to terminate its 40,000-metric-ton license late last year.
There are also concerns that interim storage could increase costs. Nuclear electricity consumers are already financing spent fuel disposal. In fairness, why should they pay for two major facilities when one would suffice? Why should they pay for spent fuel to be transported twice? To gain a better understanding, we have recently asked the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office to analyze the financial impacts to consumers and taxpayers under a range of interim storage scenarios.
Some suggest that interim storage is a safer alternative than the status quo. But a conceptual interim storage facility would use the same technology and be subject to the same regulations currently in place at the 65 existing dry cask storage facilities in the U.S. Dry cask storage is a safe and secure solution in the short run, but it was never envisioned to be permanent.
Defining "temporary" or "interim" presents another obstacle to public acceptance of interim storage. The suspension of the Nevada project would surely make any potential host state skeptical. DOE's track record in meeting commitments for disposal of spent nuclear fuel is notorious: The agency missed its 1998 statutory deadline with nuclear plant owners in 32 states. Without Yucca Mountain, DOE will not be able to meet its disposal commitments to Colorado, Idaho, New York, South Carolina, Tennessee and Washington.
We must minimize the bill for DOE's failure to begin disposing spent fuel. The GAO concluded last August that it would be faster to resume and finish the permanent repository already authorized than to start over by siting an interim facility. That means that the faster approach — to finish the Nevada project — is the best way to minimize taxpayer costs.
We are all frustrated by the failure to dispose of nuclear waste on the timetable provided in current law. However, assessing the pros and cons of interim storage, it does not seem to offer either economic or safety benefits. It would divert time, effort and resources away from actually solving the waste problem once and for all. Citizens want a sound nuclear policy and a safe solution for spent nuclear fuel disposal. The current law focusing on the Nevada project remains the best solution and, in time, the most likely to succeed.
U.S. Rep. John Shimkus represents the 15th District of Illinois. He is chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy, which has jurisdiction over nuclear waste.
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