Washington must act on nuclear waste depository

What do a U.S. Appeals Court ruling in August and a truck hijacking in December have in common? Combined, they suggest that the U.S. Congress and the Obama administration should rethink the need for the nuclear waste depository inside Nevada’s Yucca Mountain.

The nation has already spent more than $15 billion on Yucca mountain and has collected $28 billion in fees from nuclear industries. But work came to a halt in 2010 because President Barack Obama had spoken against the project during the 2008 campaign and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, like almost every Nevada politician, climbed on the not-in-my-backyard bandwagon.

We can understand NIMBY opposition. Indeed, there is a growing NIMBY debate close to home regarding a proposal by Ontario Power Generation to dig a mine shaft on the site of its Bruce Power complex as a repository for radioactive waste such as protective clothing, gloves and miscellaneous plant parts. Spent fuel, which is more hazardous, would be sent elsewhere.

The Bruce Power complex is less than a mile from the Lake Huron shoreline. Opposition to the proposal has been growing in Michigan for years and is now building in Ohio.

We see two primary differences between the Ontario plan and Yucca.

Yucca is located in the desert in Nevada, a state with fewer than 3 million people. The Great Lakes are the largest fresh water source in the world and there are about 40 million people living in the region.

And, unlike the United States, Canada hasn’t spent more than $15 billion drilling a well in Ontario and isn’t legally obliged to do so.

As the Appeals Court opinion pointed out in August, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is flouting a law passed in 1982 by suspending work on the Yucca depository.

Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, ranking member of the Senate Energy Committee and a supporter of Yucca, says the federal government has a legally binding contract with the operators of nuclear power plants. The government promised to take and store nuclear waste in exchange for storage fees paid by the plants. Those fees now exceed $750 million a year.

The only economically feasible way for the government to meet its overdue obligation is to complete Yucca. The Yucca Mountain project is not the only long-range answer to storing a growing stockpile of nuclear waste, but it is a start.

The Democratic leadership in the Senate appears willing to stonewall, as does the White House. But a majority in the House of Representatives still supported Yucca the last time there was a vote. It will be up to the House or the courts to push the issue.

Given the other fronts on which President Obama is facing criticism for selectively enforcing the law, it is possible that he is not in as strong a position to ignore provisions of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 as he was a couple of years ago.

But this is not just a policy or a political issue; it is a matter of national security.

Radioactive junk

There is simply too much radioactive junk being stored in too many places for periods that no longer qualify as “temporary.”

A secure central repository with an established policy for safe transportation of this material is necessary.

While the incident in Mexico turned out to be an amateur operation involving petty thieves who apparently didn’t know what they were stealing, it provided a wake-up call.

Within hours of the news breaking that a truck containing cobalt-60 had been stolen in central Mexico, the International Atomic Energy Agency issued a warning that the material had the potential for use in a “dirty bomb.”

Terrorists don’t have the wherewithal to build a nuclear bomb (although some terrorist states do), but packing radioactive material into a conventional bomb is within the skill set of terrorist cells or individuals. The best way to avoid the catastrophe that would follow the detonation of a bomb packed with radioactive material in a densely populated place is to safely store that material.

The year 2014 is the year to get the Yucca Mountain depository back on track.

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