D. Dowd Muska


Another Trip to the DOE’s Mountain of Waste?

November 13, 2014

This 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 assemblies.”

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 that Yucca 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.

Starting in 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. Nevada 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.

The Bush 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.

Then Harry 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 “waste” problem.

Will another 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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