Energy / Environment / Politics

Nuclear Waste’s Apathy Tax

Everyone knows littering is bad, but when it comes to 75,000 metric tons of nuclear waste Obama is apathetic. The growing nuclear waste problem in the U.S. was meant to be addressed by the 1987 amendment to the Nuclear Waste Policy act. The resulting plan was to store all of the nation’s nuclear waste in a repository deep inside Yucca Mountain (located in the rural Nevada desert). After years of research and exploration, funding was cut in 2009 by the Obama Administration. Ironically, halting the project is actually costing American taxpayers billions more than if it had simply gone ahead as planned.

The Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository has a total estimated cost of $96.2 billion. Scientists and engineers assessed that Yucca Mountain’s natural barriers would have protected buried waste, keeping it from water and populations. Senator Harry Reid (D-Nevada) has been the project’s chief opponent, accusing the repository of being costly and unsafe (statements which I refuted in my previous blog). In 2009, Reid achieved his victory when the Administration cut funding for Yucca Mountain with questionable reasoning.

Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository, via the Department of Energy

Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository, via the Department of Energy

While the price tag of $96.2 billion may seem excessive, taxpayers only pay about 20% of this. This leaves a cost to taxpayers of only about $18.7 billion, with utility companies paying for the other $77.3 billion. Utilities pay for this by levying a charge of $0.001 per kWh, amounting to only pennies on electricity consumer’s bills. When considering that $13.5 billion has already been spent on Yucca Mountain, the actual amount left to be levied from taxpayers amounts to only $16.1 billion.

From a budget perspective the problem is that ending the Yucca Mountain project is a breach of contract, and has shifted liability to the government. Whereas utility companies were previously paying into a nuclear waste management fund, now the expenses are borne by taxpayers. By court order, the government has paid out $2.6 billion to utility companies and is liable for a further $19.7 billion, meaning that the current liability costs actually exceed what it would have cost the government to build the repository.

It gets worse though. The liability costs will increase over time, and if a waste repository is not built by 2020 (an impossible feat at this point), the costs will increase to an additional $500 million per year. This only includes the near term liability costs though, it does not take into account the full lifetime of Yucca Mountain. When the Government Accountability Office assessed the total costs that the U.S. government can be held liable for, it determined that it could amount to as much as $97 billion.

All of this ignores worst case scenarios with current nuclear storage methods though. Serious events such as natural disasters, nuclear catastrophes, terrorist attacks, or any other event which releases radioactive material could have a massive economic and environmental impact. The nuclear disaster at Fukushima’s biggest problem was stored nuclear waste releasing radioactive material. This had a projected economic impact of $250 – $500 billion, and costs would likely be similar in America. Most of the nuclear waste designated to be moved to Yucca Mountain is currently being stored at power plants near cities, rivers, fault lines, and coasts—all areas where they are both extremely vulnerable to disasters as well as have high consequences for extreme events.

For America, delaying the construction of Yucca Mountain has and will continue to come at a cost to taxpayer funds and overall safety. Elected officials took an oath to protect the American people, but when it comes to nuclear waste they have ignored even the most basic measures for long term planning. Whether politicians accept it or not, there will eventually need to be a nuclear waste repository for geologic storage. In the interests of safety and costs, the U.S. should move forward with the Yucca Mountain project as soon as possible. The Administration’s current policy on nuclear waste not only imperils Americans, but makes them pay for it—literally.