Our Voice: Nuclear waste dilemma needs judicial resolution

July 5, 2013 

A bipartisan group of four U.S. senators is scrambling to produce a plan for the nation's mounting stockpile of spent nuclear fuel, a massive environmental problem manufactured by President Obama.

Until the president unilaterally decided to abandon plans for a high-level nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, Nev., the nation was on track to find a permanent solution for this toxic dilemma.

But in a clearly political maneuver, Obama closed the doors on Yucca Mountain after America's ratepayers shelled out $100 billion studying the site and just before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was set to determine the site's ability to safely store used nuclear wastes.

The Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, found that the decision to abandon the Nevada site was made for policy reasons, not technical or safety reasons.

At the time, we and other observers were pointing out that the political motivation for the administration's move could hardly have been any clearer with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid facing a tough re-election campaign for his Nevada seat.

With virtually every poll showing Reid in serious danger of losing the election, he appeared to desperately need the boost that an end to the unpopular Yucca Mountain repository could deliver.

But Obama's actions carried consequences that reverberated beyond Nevada's senate race into every corner of the country.

Just last month, participants at a conference organized by the U.S. Nuclear Infrastructure Council voiced concerns about the safety of indefinitely storing more than 65,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel at 72 reactor sites in 34 states, including Energy Northwest's Columbia Generating Station.

Some 2,000 additional tons of waste are produced each year, according to a 2012 report by the president's Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future.

Most of it is in casks or cooling ponds at nuclear reactors, a situation that is growing more untenable as reactors reach the end of their useful life and close down. It's one thing to safeguard used fuel rods at operating sites, where handling equipment and security systems already are in place.

It's another to keep an eye on spent fuel when it's the only thing keeping the operator from putting a padlock on the gate and walking away.

Last year, the Energy Department counted nine such sites, with about 2,800 tons of fuel in 248 casks, and was hoping to establish a pilot-scale interim storage plant for that fuel, according to the New York Times.

Since then, nuclear utilities have announced the retirement of an additional four reactors, leaving three more sites without an operating reactor.

Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, joined forces to introduce legislation to solve the problem.

"This bill takes immediate steps to more safely store the most dangerous radioactive waste, and lays out a clear plan for a permanent solution," Wyden told Stateline.org.

The legislation would create an independent Nuclear Waste Administration, shifting management from the Department of Energy. It would also speed construction of new temporary and permanent storage facilities. Under the plan, states and localities would apply to take the waste and set conditions for its transfer.

It may take such far-reaching legislation to get the country out of this poetically motivated mess, but we'd rather see lawsuits prevail that seek to overturn Obama's decision to abandon Yucca Mountain.

Otherwise, what's to stop a future president from tossing out any bill that's deemed to be a political liability?

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