The country needs a place for atomic garbage. So why is the president closing the dump?

February 16, 2010  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  Independent Journalism Project  ·  Pollution

President Obama fully supports expanding the U.S. nuclear-energy industry—or so he'd have us believe.

Obama got lots of publicity with his recent promise of more than $8 billion in federal loan guarantees for two Georgia nuclear plants, which would be the first built in more than three decades. He also announced that his budget would triple loan guarantees for nuclear plants, declaring that, "to meet our growing energy needs and prevent the worst consequences of climate change, we'll need to increase our supply of nuclear power. It's that simple."

But it's not that simple. Antinuclear activists continue to score points by observing that we have no place to store the 2,200 tons of nuclear waste that our approximately 100 nuclear sites produce every year, much less a 66,000-ton backlog. Nevada's Yucca Mountain was the nation's designated nuclear-waste storage facility, but it was torpedoed by none other than Obama.

Inside the Yucca Mountain depository, all dressed up and no place to go.

The president didn't just eliminate funds for Yucca Mountain in both the 2010 and 2011 budgets. Insteadin what sounds like an inside-the-Beltway jokehe sunk the facility by announcing a blue-ribbon panel to study the problem. Anti-nukers were ecstatic. "In shuttering Yucca Mountain," one wrote, "Obama makes it extremely likely that nuclear power in the United States will continue its long, slow, and extremely welcome death."

Nuclear power has tremendous potential. France gets more than three-fourths of its energy from it, and we're getting almost twice as much as we did three decades ago, with fewer plants. Compare that amazing efficiency increase with the incremental improvements in wind and solar power.

But whither the waste? Twenty-seven years ago, the federal government agreed to accept responsibility for storing it. And, 22 years ago, it designated the caverns of Yucca Mountain as the sole storage site. It was to start accepting deliveries in 1998.

But while Nevada may be the safest place to store the waste, it's also home to both Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who is facing a tough reelection bid, and the powerful gambling industry that fills his campaign coffers.

"The industry is concerned that if there's an accident, it would be devastating to tourism," said John Scire, who teaches energy policy and politics at the University of Nevada, Reno. "But there's no overwhelming opposition among the people." He noted that polls show less than 60 percent of Nevadans oppose the site, and "if there were jobs and good proof of safety, you'd see that figure inverted."

Some argue that Yucca Mountain isn't the solution because it's designated to accept only 70,000 tons of waste, and we're almost there now. But it would at least be a start. Moreover, a 2008 Energy Department report pointed out that the facility can handle four times that, and it could be safely modified to accept nine times that.

Nuclear energy is working fine for the French—though their system of disposal leaves something to be desired.

It's also all the rage among policy wonks to argue that Yucca-brand waste storage is so yesterday, and that we should adopt the "French solution" by "recycling" nuclear waste. The problem is that this is not recycling in any normal sense; it still requires long-term underground storage, and it creates more problems than it solves.

That's why Japan is the only other country to have adopted the French method, says Frank von Hippel, a cochairman of the International Panel on Fissile Materials and a Princeton professor. Von Hippel says that the total waste storage cost for the lifetime of operating U.S. reactors is about $5 billion, but it would balloon to about $100 billion if the waste were recycled.

The French system is also terribly dangerous in that part of the waste becomes weapons-grade plutonium. "It's so portable," said von Hippel, "that a single man can handle a whole container, and a couple of those would be enough for a Nagasaki bomb." Plutonium is also dangerous if released into the air, which is why France stationed antiaircraft missile batteries at its main reprocessing plant after 9/11.

Said von Hippel: "We shouldn't have eliminated Yucca Mountain. I understand that people in Nevada think the selection process was unfair. You have to talk to and negotiate with localities; worldwide, that's been shown to work." In Japan, he notes, areas that accept nuclear waste are paid large bounties, just as states here pay other states to take their garbage.

Not that it's too late: Yucca Mountain hasn't moved to Brazil. One possible solution to the nation's nuclear-waste storage problem might be for the Obama administration to simply wait until the November elections are over. Then it can approach Nevada and say, "Let's make a deal."