Senator Reid Out, Yucca Mountain In? | Citizens Against Government Waste

Senator Reid Out, Yucca Mountain In?

The WasteWatcher

On March 27, 2015, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) announced that he will not seek reelection in 2016.  Supporters of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository hope that the exit of one of its most powerful opponents will breathe new life into the long-stalled project.

The U.S. has been searching for a long-term site to store its nuclear waste since the 1970s.  The nation’s 70,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel, which can remain radioactive for thousands of years, is currently sitting in more than 70 reactor sites scattered across the country, often within close proximity to highly-populated metropolitan areas.  In 2008, after decades of examination and dozens of lawsuits, the Department of Energy submitted a license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to complete construction and make operational the repository under Yucca Mountain, located in the heart of the Nevada desert, 90 miles north of Las Vegas.  Yet despite more than $15 billion in expenditures on the project and many decisions by federal courts across the country that reiterate the government’s obligation to store the waste, President Obama and Sen. Reid have effectively used their influence to halt progress on the project.

During the eight-year period from 2007 to 2015 that Sen. Reid served as majority leader, he vigorously fought back against progress on Yucca Mountain in nearly every way possible.  According to an April 4, 2015 article in The Hill, “The Democratic leader has worked to cut funding for the application and planning process; fought to stop spending bill riders for Yucca; and sought to ensure the appointment of Yucca skeptics to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).  He helped convince President Obama to drop the Bush administration’s defense of the application for Yucca, and establish a policy that any nuclear waste site needs the consent of the local and state governments.” 

Sen. Reid’s opposition would make sense if there were strong environmental and safety concerns surrounding Yucca Mountain; however, the opposite is true.  On January 30, 2015, the NRC released the fourth and fifth volumes of its five-volume Safety Evaluation Report, which concluded that Yucca Mountain meets all of the technical and safety requirements for the disposal of highly radioactive nuclear waste.  The third volume of the report, which was released on October 16, 2014 found that Yucca Mountain would remain safe for one million years.

Delaying Yucca Mountain has also proven very pricey for taxpayers.  In accordance with the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act, nuclear reactor operators and their customers have been paying taxes on produced waste in exchange for a government guarantee to use the collected revenue to create a safe, long-term repository for the spent nuclear fuel.  Although a 2013 federal appellate court decision barred the government from continuing to collect fees from utilities, the government’s failure to produce a storage location has resulted in overcrowding of nuclear waste in on-site cooling pools, forcing companies to build costly above-ground storage casks. 

In order to claw back some of the cost associated with storing this waste, states and utilities have filed dozens of lawsuits.  According to an April 6, 2015 article in The Wall Street Journal, “[The Department of Energy] (DOE) has paid more than $4 billion as a result of such suits over the past four years, and by some estimates total liability for these legal breaches could exceed $50 billion.”

In addition to the costs of ongoing litigation, the buildup of nuclear waste at temporary sites will present a further challenge should the government search for a new storage facility.  According to an August 2012 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, “The amount of spent fuel stored on-site at commercial nuclear reactors will continue to accumulate—increasing by about 2,000 metric tons per year and likely more than doubling to about 140,000 metric tons—before it can be moved off-site, because storage or disposal facilities may take decades to develop.  In examining centralized storage or permanent disposal options, GAO found that new facilities may take from 15 to 40 years before they are ready to begin accepting spent fuel.  Once an off-site facility is available, it will take several more decades to ship spent fuel to that facility.  This situation will be challenging because by about 2040 most currently operating reactors will have ceased operations, and options for managing spent fuel, if needed to meet transportation, storage, or disposal requirements, may be limited.”

With more than $15 billion already committed to the Yucca Mountain project, no viable alternative location, and the absence of any safety, health, or other technical concerns, it simply does not make sense to search for another long-term nuclear waste storage site.  Sen Reid’s imminent departure from Congress should remove the fear of political reprisal that has prevented many Democrats from breaking ranks and finally allow logic and statutory responsibility to prevail over parochial and partisan considerations.  Lawmakers should seize the opportunity and provide funding to restart the Yucca Mountain project as soon as possible.

-- P.J. Austin

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