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Time for Congress to do more than talk about nuclear waste

Published: Mon, March 4, 2013 @ 12:00 a.m.

While a lot of news has been made in the Mahoning Valley in recent weeks about the disposal of one kind of energy waste — liquid from hydraulic fracture wells — another potentially more troublesome waste has been accumulating for decades while congresses and administrations have dithered.

Civilian nuclear waste — a problem that was once presumed to have a solution awaiting it deep within Nevada’s Yucca Mountain — continues to be warehoused at various sites in 35 states, Pennsylvania and Ohio among them.

Ohio has 1,120 metric tons of uranium in storage, Pennsylvania has 6,070 tons, according to the latest figures available from the Nuclear Energy Institute.

A giant money pit

The federal government invested billions of dollars in constructing underground vaults at Yucca Mountain under a national plan that would have had the waste shipped there and encapsulated. But Yucca became a hot topic in Nevada politics, and when its Democratic senator, Harry Reid, became Senate majority leader, he killed the project, with President Barack Obama’s acquiescence.

But the problems of safely storing nuclear waste do not go away, and there is a new effort in the Senate to find a safer alternative to the present system. It is most likely a plan for consolidated interim storage sites until an alternative to Yucca presents itself, or until changing politics resurrects the Yucca complex.

While any long-term solution will be decades in the making, it is time for Congress to act responsibly.

Storage dangers are real

The danger of scattered-site storage is being dramatically illustrated by reports of leakage of high level nuclear waste from six underground storage tanks at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state. The Hanford waste dates to the very dawn of the nuclear age; the plant produced the plutonium for the atom bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki in 1945, and it subsequently provided much of the plutonium for the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

Congress recognized the need for a real solution to the dangers of accumulating nuclear waste from the production of weapons and nuclear energy when it passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act in 1982. Since then, utility customers in 36 states with nuclear power plants have paid more than $17 billion into the Nuclear Waste Fund for construction of a permanent national repository, and they have nothing to show for it but an expensive dry hole in the Nevada desert.

False start

A bipartisan Blue Ribbon Commission issued its final report in January 2012, but the Senate committee on energy and natural resources didn’t take up legislation based on the report until December of that year, knowing that there was not enough time for passage.

Now four senators, Ron Wyden, D-Ore.; Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.; Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, are drafting legislation that is expected to be introduced this month.

Don’t expect the Senate to resurrect Yucca Mountain, but House Republicans have been far more supportive — even enthusiastic — about the Yucca facility. That could make for an interesting political battle, but the time for battles is past. It’s time for results.


1Jorth(2 comments)posted 3 years, 4 months ago

The politicalization of Nuclear Waste management has always been controversial, but Obama and Reid have made it a travesty.
When it comes to making decisions that should be based on fact based technology and not emotional rhetoric the US Congress is ignorant and incompetent.
We didn't let Congress design Nuclear Reactors for the Navy or for Nuclear Power plants, but we are perfectly willing to let them decide how to process nuclear waste.
Yucca Mountain was designed and developed by competent engineers and scientists and then fully tested for environmental risks with a multi thousand page report of all tests submitted to the federal government to justify a license to open and operate.
The most important aspect of Yucca Mountain that Obama and Reid continue to misrepresent is that it is a RETRIEVABLE STORAGE SITE, not a "burial site" as the Democrats and Media have always called it.
To describe it accurately would not serve their purposes to scuttle the project. The truth is that the spent nuclear fuel intended to be stored at Yucca still contains 90% useable uranium and will become economical to recover at some time in the future when our supply of natural uranium becomes rare and too expensive to process. When that occurs a whole new industry to retrieve the spent fuel and recover the useable fuel will become feasible and Yucca Mountain will become a logical site for reprocessing.
All of the other hype of transportation safety and ground water contamination is totally fabricated to invent scare tactics to satisfy the opponents objective to kill the use of Nuclear Energy. We have been transporting both nuclear fuel and weapons all over the USA for over 65 years with out an accident that released any radioactive material. Why would it suddenly be hazardous if we moved it to Yucca Mountain in the same ultrasafe shipping containers we have been using all this time.
Let's leave the technical decisions to the experts and respect their judgement for a change. Our politicians have a poor track record of managing this problem and after their recent performances with the fiscal issues why on earth would we want to entrust the decision of how and where we should store and treat our nuclear waste.

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2wjv3(1 comment)posted 3 years, 4 months ago

If our government had any sense, it would have invested all those billions thrown down the Yucca Mountain rathole into reactor research that can consume the waste where it is and produce electricity at the same time.
What don't we understand about this concept! Granted, some stupid laws have to be changed, but isn't that why we have a Congress? The current Gen IV reactor concepts are the solution to our "nuclear waste" problem, and that's in quotes for a good reason: 99% of it is valuable stuff and it will be safe where it is if we get off our collective asses and build SMRs, IFRs, HTHRs, LFTRs etc. ASAP. (you'll have to google those acronyms).
After all, most of the LWRs in our current nuclear fleet need to be replaced and/or updated anyway. Wouldn't make sense to upgrade them with reactors that can use the spent nuclear fuel that they have on-site?

Again I ask, what so hard to understand about this? We just need the collective will to get this project off the ground. I think the government has to lead on this. Sometimes that means just getting out of the way.

By the way, we'll still need Yucca and WIPP to store the 1% of our current waste stockpile and, even then, it will be down to background levels within 350 years. But it doesn't need to be retrieveable.

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