July 19, 2010

YUCCA MOUNTAIN: THE NUCLEAR WASTE SOLUTION

Guest column submitted by U.S. Senator Mike Crapo

Since coming to Congress, I have strongly advocated for nuclear power to be a key component of our national energy strategy.  In recent years, efforts to expand our nuclear energy portfolio have gained momentum, which adds urgency to the question of what to do with used nuclear fuel and defense high-level waste.  In 1982, Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA), which mandated the establishment of a permanent, high-level nuclear waste repository.  After five years of research and studying, Congress selected Yucca Mountain, a government-owned site in Nevada formerly used for nuclear weapons testing, as the only site to be considered.  In 2008, the Department of Energy (DOE) submitted the Yucca Mountain license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).  Fast forward two years, and politics is rearing its ugly head in the vital debate over what to do with America's nuclear waste.  
 
During the 2008 presidential campaign, then-Senator Obama pledged that, if elected, Yucca Mountain would not go forward.  Once in office, the Obama Administration moved quickly to shelve Yucca Mountain by defunding operations and attempting to withdraw its license application.  Efforts to stop Yucca Mountain were moving swiftly, until the NRC's Atomic Safety and Licensing Board ruled that DOE lacks the legal authority to close the repository unilaterally, and that Congress must amend the NWPA to withdraw the license application.  In the ruling, the judges mentioned that DOE weakened its argument to shut the facility down by "…conceding that the application is not flawed nor the (Yucca) site unsafe."  This is the first time that the Administration's efforts to stop Yucca Mountain have received pushback from a federal regulatory body. I hope the full NRC will make the same decision as the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board when this case comes before the full commission.    
 
The disposal of high level nuclear waste is of national significance, but it is especially important for our nation's national laboratories. The Idaho National Laboratory currently stores 280 metric tons of used nuclear fuel above ground, along with a classified amount of used Navy fuel.  Under the 1994 Idaho Settlement Agreement, that waste must be out of Idaho by 2035.  The federal government has binding agreements with industry that obligated it to begin taking the waste in 1998, but that process has been stalled without Yucca Mountain in place.  As such, the courts have already awarded nuclear plant operators about $1 billion.  If Yucca Mountain is permanently off the table, the federal government will owe rate-payers an additional $22 billion they have collected in order to build the facility. 
 
There are serious policy questions about the Administration's decision to forego Yucca Mountain from its first day in office.  The recent action at the NRC substantiates these concerns.  Whether the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board's determination stands when the full NRC takes up the case, the Board's resolve makes it clear that the Administration's actions are unlawful, in addition to being politically motivated.  

 

The nation needs a permanent repository for used nuclear fuel, and we have spent billions analyzing the site and preparing a license.  To throw away that effort, with no alternative in mind, undermines nuclear power and weakens our national energy posture.  The process needs to get back on track.  It is my sincere hope that the full NRC will come to the same conclusion that the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board did, and that the Administration will ultimately be forced to reverse course.  If so, we will then be able to move forward much more effectively to expand our utilization of nuclear power to strengthen America's energy policy.  

 

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