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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.

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