The March 11 earthquake in Japan led to a tsunami that crippled the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. While this double tragedy is unlikely at any U.S. nuclear plant, we must take a hard look at our country’s lack of a central storage facility for nuclear waste.
Back in 1982, the Nuclear Waste Policy Act made the federal government responsible for collecting nuclear waste. Since then, $14.5 billion in taxpayer and electricity ratepayer funds have been spent on the project.
In 1987, Yucca Mountain in Nevada was named the sole U.S. site for a permanent repository of nuclear waste. The Department of Energy confirmed the science behind this decision in 1994. In 2002, Congress and then-President George W. Bush approved Yucca Mountain again. In 2008, DOE filed a license application with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to build at Yucca Mountain.
Then President Barack Obama named a former staffer of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to head the NRC. The agency stopped its analysis of the pending application, and DOE closed the underground mountain site. Was science the determining factor?
Obviously, the decision to move forward with a national nuclear waste repository has been supported by Republican- and Democratic-controlled Congresses and Republican and Democratic presidents throughout these years.
The storage site would be below ground, in a remote desert location owned by the federal government. Earthquakes have had little effect on this area and even less of an effect underground.
Today, we store nuclear waste at 121 nuclear plant sites in 39 states. About one-quarter of this waste is stored in dry casks. The remainder is stored in wet pools — like at Japan’s Fukushima site. Such pools are within 50 miles of New York, Chicago and San Diego. Is that really where we want to store nuclear waste?
Just this week, the Senate majority leader himself is quoted as saying about nuclear fuel rods, “The ones that haven’t been safe are the ones in the pools, sloshing around, causing all kinds of problems.”
On March 30, the president called for an increase in nuclear power as part of a clean energy standard. While I may not agree with a mandated standard like that, I know that nuclear power is likely to remain vital to our nation’s electricity portfolio.
I can see three to five new nuclear plants moving forward, given the current regulatory environment. I cannot see, though I would like to, a larger increase in nuclear power until we establish a design standard for new plants — and deal with the long-term storage of nuclear waste.
Unfortunately, the president and his administration have unilaterally halted work on Yucca Mountain. They would rather see nuclear waste stored all over the country. But if we cannot store nuclear waste 1,000 feet underground in a desert mountain, where can we store it?
The administration is failing to carry out federal law. To find out exactly why the Obama administration halted work on Yucca Mountain, under our oversight, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and I opened an investigation.
On March 31, we sent letters to Energy Secretary Steven Chu and the chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
As part of our official responsibility, I will lead a legislative delegation to tour Yucca Mountain later this month. I have been criticized for this trip — with opponents claiming it is unnecessary and an excessive cost.
DOE estimates included $175,000 to open the Yucca underground site. Unfortunately, much of that extreme cost is a direct result of the administration’s unilateral decision to shut down all functions at the Yucca Mountain facility — which I believe is in violation of the law.
Unsolicited, DOE also had suggested using helicopters to travel — at a minimum cost of $25,000. Without question, the decision was made to eliminate the underground portion of the trip, and the delegation will travel to the site via ground transportation, as planned all along.
We are basing our trip on practices followed by the Government Accountability Office when it visited Yucca Mountain last November, without fanfare or complaint from DOE — and consistent with site visits conducted routinely to federal facilities. We are simply asking for similar accommodations.
DOE and Yucca opponents want to cast this trip as unnecessary. What do they have to hide?
Past Congresses and administrations have approved Yucca Mountain. While it has taken too long to become reality, this administration should not make unilateral decisions without the consent of Congress.
To expand nuclear power use in the United States, Yucca Mountain must become a reality.
Rep. John Shimkus is chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy, which has jurisdiction over federal nuclear waste policy.
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