November 13, 2014
Thanksgiving, D.C.’s technocrats are hoping for a different kind of stuffing.
GOP control of
both congressional chambers has emboldened enthusiasts of a national repository
for spent nuclear
fuel (SNF). The leftovers from fission-based power stations, SNF isn’t the
green, glowing goo found at Homer Simpson’s atomic plant. A presidential panel described the real-world stuff as “hard pellets … stacked inside
long metal tubes,” arranged “into fuel
In the view of
the nuclear industry and its many patrons in Washington -- not
all of them Republicans, it’s worth noting -- SNF should be crammed underneath
the desert at a location 100 miles from Las
Vegas. In 1987, Congress and Ronald Reagan decreed
Mountain would be the sole resting
place for the nation’s used fuel assemblies. It was one-size-fits-all,
bureaucracy-knows-best Big Science -- a scheme fitting for the naïveté of the New Frontier, and hardly aligned
with the deregulatory zeitgeist.
1998, the U.S. Department of Energy was contractually required to take possession
of commercial reactors’ SNF, and put it, along with high-level waste from
the Pentagon’s atomic programs, in a facility approved by the Nuclear
Regulatory Commission (NRC). Sit down for this one -- the deadline was not met.
politicians, joined by professional eco-alarmists, got lawsuit-happy. Legal challenges,
usually meritless, were regularly filed. But the executive branch’s conduct
wasn’t much better. The DOE and its contractors proved to be wholly incapable
of completing site characterization in a timely manner. Congress, not
surprisingly, grabbed the revenue -- and
there was lots of it -- being set
aside to fund the repository.
administration filed a license application with the NRC in 2008, more than a
decade after the national government was to begin accepting SNF at an operational
facility. At the time, Yucca
Mountain’s grand opening
was optimistically estimated to occur in 2020.
Reid got his president. Nevada’s
nastiest pol had urged fellow Senator Barack Obama to run for the White
House, and in 2009, Reid’s early encouragement was rewarded. “Yucca is
history,” he bragged, when the White House announced a sizable cut to the
program’s budget, in the first step toward implementing its “decision to
terminate the Yucca
Mountain program while
developing disposal alternatives.”
For the last
few years, the project has been dormant, even though no congressional action
ever formally ended the repository-citing process enacted in the 1980s. The
NRC, under a court order, continues
to review the DOE’s construction-license application, which the Obama
administration, in 2010, unsuccessfully attempted to withdraw. It will be years
before the commission makes a final determination.
With Reid about
to lose his job as Senate pit
boss, will Yucca be back in “business”? Will it receive appropriations
again, allowing its scientists and engineers to get back to work? The nuclear
industry certainly hopes so. George
Will’s on board. So
is The Boston Globe. Even the
libertarian Cato Institute seems to have fallen for the notion that the feds
should run a cemetery for SNF. In a recent
blog post, the think tank cited a new NRC report that found the site “is
safe for use.”
But to the
keenest analysts, safety’s never been the issue with Yucca Mountain.
In all probability, a secure, permanent bunker for SNF can be built and
operated. It’s the larger issue that is rarely discussed: Why is the federal
government managing the nation’s spent nuclear fuel, anyway?
No defender of
limited government should wish for Washington
to assume any industry’s obligation
to take out the trash. The solution to the SNF quandary is the same today as it
was in 1987. Nuclear utilities should be empowered to seek their own answers. A
funding mechanism already exists. Between 1983 and last May, ratepayers were
assessed a fee for every atomic kilowatt-hour they consumed. The kitty accrued
into tens of billions of dollars. That much moolah can purchase a myriad of alternatives.
Dry storage of
SNF, in casks, vaults, or silos, has been judged by the NRC to be “safe and
environmentally acceptable for a period of 100 years.” That leaves plenty of
time to explore options. Promising transmutation
research could be pursued. Foreign storage might make sense. Over the next
century, the recycling of fuel assemblies -- permitted abroad, but speciously banned by the
Carter administration -- could become legal again in America, eliminating much of the
few decades of political games and bureaucratic incompetence settle SNF’s fate?
Not likely. Yucca
Mountain’s defenders need
to think bigger, and broader.
D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.
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