The U.S. has No Plan for Nuclear Waste

A pool storing spent nuclear fuel, via FirstEnergy Corp.

A pool storing spent nuclear fuel, via FirstEnergy Corp.

The fight to address the nation’s growing nuclear waste problem is not a technological one, but a political one. Misinformation and irrational fears have served to keep many people opposed to the long term solution of a nuclear waste repository, but the irony is that failing to relocate the waste is far more dangerous. The Union of Concerned Scientists points out that the lack of a nuclear waste repository has forced an increased reliance on storing waste in cooling pools, which require maintenance and could be vulnerable to extreme events or attacks. The opposition to relocating the fuel is political in nature, spearheaded by Nevadan politicians who are concerned about storing nuclear waste at the Department of Energy’s (DOE) selected repository site of Yucca Mountain (about 100 miles from Las Vegas, Nevada).

The concern surrounding the lack of a nuclear waste repository is growing, particularly in response to new power regulation. Last August, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) unveiled the “Clean Power Plan” (CPP) which will regulate the carbon emissions of power sources, and increase our reliance on carbon neutral energy sources such as nuclear power. 20 percent of the country’s electricity generation is already produced by nuclear power, and the regulations of the CPP will likely keep it that way. Yet the problem of storing spent nuclear fuel and other types of waste is mounting, and expended fuel is piling up in “temporary” storage, where it has the dangerous combination of environmental vulnerability and a close proximity to densely populated areas. Most of this spent fuel is stored on site at nuclear power plants near major cities such as Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., New York City, Chicago, and more. A disaster at one of these sites would have far more serious consequences than at a remote geologic repository.

Despite the obvious risks of current nuclear waste practices, Senator Harry Reid (D-Nevada) and other Nevadan politicians vehemently oppose moving forward with the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository. They frequently refer to the repository as a “dump,” and have galvanized Nevadans to decry the project. In response to tightened safety regulation, Reid had this to say,

“Instead of working to protect the health and safety of Nevadans, EPA and DOE are casting science aside in an attempt to get the nuclear waste dump approved . . . That is why I am working with Senator Ensign (R-Nevada) to keep nuclear waste on-site at the power plants where it is produced in secure dry cask storage containers that are approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. This plan is safer, more cost-effective, and will give us at least a century to find a more permanent solution to nuclear waste.”

Nuclear waste being stored above ground, via Sandia National Labs

Nuclear waste being stored above ground, via Sandia National Labs

Reid’s criticisms are dubious at best though. The limit of 15 millirem per year of radiation he opposes is less than what someone experiences in airline travel, the same containers at power plants he praises the safety of are what would be used for storing waste underground at Yucca Mountain, and the government is being held liable for waste storage costs (to the tune of $22 billion) for keeping waste on-site.

This narrative of opposition though effectively killed the nuclear waste disposal plan which was born from the the 1987 amendment to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA), an amendment promising nuclear energy suppliers a permanent solution to nuclear waste storage. According to the NWPA, nuclear waste is to be stored in an underground geologic repository, where it will remain undisturbed by nature or men for millions of years. Decades of planning and billions of dollars have been spent assessing and ultimately approving the viability of Yucca Mountain as a site for a geologic repository, but in 2009 funding was effectively cut and the project halted while the country’s 75,000 metric ton stockpile of nuclear waste grows while costing taxpayers billions of dollars.

The reason Yucca Mountain is so important to U.S. energy security though is the lack of alternative suitable sites. There are precious few potential locations for long term nuclear waste storage on the scale needed, and so far Yucca Mountain is the only one that has been assessed and approved (a process that has taken years, and cost $13.5 billion). The fact that politicians have suspended the Yucca Mountain project indefinitely is putting Americans at risk, and raising costs to taxpayers. Since the CPP has ensured the importance of nuclear power for America’s future energy security, it is imperative that creating safe and effective storage for nuclear waste is a top priority.

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