Nuclear waste problem is not one to ignore

In recent speeches, including his opus on climate change earlier this summer, President Barack Obama has attempted to stake out a popular position as a friend to the environment. His initiatives to reduce carbon emissions through improved vehicle fuel efficiency and setting emission limits for coal-burning power plants are laudable in this regard.

These achievements stand in stark contrast to the president’s interference in construction of the Yucca Mountain nuclear repository and the related clean up of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. At best it looks like shady backroom politics. But worse, it undermines the sincerity of the president’s stated concern for the environment.

A Washington, D.C., federal appeals court recently found that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) broke the law by shutting down work at Yucca Mountain to build deep underground storage for spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste. It ordered the NRC to finish processing the license to complete the project.

But it was the Obama administration that disregarded the 1987 law passed by Congress to develop Yucca Mountain.

When Nevada Sen. Harry Reid needed votes to win re-election in the 2006 mid-term elections, he promised to kill the project. President Obama shamefully obliged the Democratic Senate Majority Leader by directing the Department of Energy (DOE) to withdraw its licensing application in 2010. That effectively shut down Yucca Mountain just when it was on the verge of accepting waste from sites like Hanford.

Obama then ordered a new study on how and where to store the nation’s nuclear waste with instructions that Yucca Mountain was off the table.

For several reasons, Washington state played a lead role in the lawsuit to force the NRC to finish processing a license for Yucca Mountain. Hanford’s 56 million gallons of radioactive toxic waste – now leaking and seeping toward the Columbia River – is destined for permanent storage at the Yucca site. And Northwest utility customers have contributed more than $200 million to the project.

The federal government has mishandled almost every aspect of its obligation to provide safe disposal for nuclear waste – more than 70,000 metric tons have accumulated at 121 sites in 39 states. The DOE has consistently missed cleanup deadlines at Hanford, where project failures have resulted in multiple delays. New leaks in the massive underground storage tanks are a harbinger of potential contamination disasters.

We hope this latest embarrassment handed down by a federal court will motivate the Obama Administration to stop ignoring our serious nuclear waste problem.