Congress Shouldn’t Waste Nuclear

Democrats and Republicans continue to kick around the political football that is America’s failed nuclear waste policy with no end in sight. Last month, a subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee passed legislation to move forward with licensing of the Yucca Mountain storage facility with a bipartisan vote. But even before the vote transpired, Speaker Nancy Pelosi vowed that she wouldn’t let the full House vote on the measure because Yucca Mountain is unacceptable to Nevada Democrats. Meanwhile, in the Senate, Republicans have passed legislation authorizing the Yucca Mountain repository, but refuse to appropriate any money to actually build it.

The gridlock is partly ideological. Claims that waste can’t be stored safely has been a proxy for opposition to nuclear energy for decades. But at this point, the waste impasse is driven more by cynical “not in my backyard” politics. Nevada Democrats don’t want Yucca Mountain. Many other Democrats want the federal government to take possession of spent fuel from closed reactors and move it to interim storage out of state. Republicans insist that the federal government has already invested substantial resources in Yucca Mountain, arguing that if Democrats want waste storage, they will have to force Yucca Mountain onto Nevadans.

There is a better and cheaper way, one that doesn’t require a costly, centralized waste repository, new interim storage facilities, or forcing nuclear waste onto unwilling communities. In our new report, Beyond Yucca Mountain, we argue that the United States already has a safe, effective, and low cost nuclear waste disposal system that holds the key to resolving the current impasse.

For decades, the United States has stored spent fuel in concrete casks at reactor sites around the country. Each cask is about the size of a shipping container, and they are engineered to be virtually indestructible. In safety testing, the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission requires that each cask survive a free fall from 30 feet onto a hard surface, all sorts of pierces and punctures, prolonged immersion in water, and a fully-engulfing fire of 1500°F — one after another. There have been no known or suspected radiation releases from these casks in the history of their operation, and they are safely used around the world.

But while the existing system of dry cask storage is technically proven and effectively regulated by the NRC, it is technically illegal. That’s because, two decades ago, Congress and the first Bush administration attempted to force the state of Nevada to accept a centralized, long-term storage facility against their will.

Despite broad opposition from the Nevada public and almost all of its political leaders, Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, requiring the federal government to take ownership of all the nation’s nuclear waste and store it at Yucca Mountain. Intense opposition from the state has doomed Yucca Mountain to sit idle. As a result of the federal government’s failure to meet its own obligations, taxpayers have been forced to pay out legal penalties to utilities of more than $7 billion.

If there is a lesson from the Yucca Mountain debacle, it is that attempting to force a community to house waste against their will is a recipe for failure. A better approach will be to amend the Nuclear Waste Policy Act to build upon the nation’s current decentralized waste management system with a consent-based process.

Attempting to force a community to house waste against their will is a recipe for failure.

Keeping the waste where it already is, in dry casks, at existing nuclear facilities, with the consent of — and benefits for — local communities, is a solution that can work for decades, and probably centuries. The federal government should use its Nuclear Waste Fund, worth more than $40 billion, to benefit communities that agree to host storage sites. “Consent-based siting” like this works in countries like Finland, Canada, and Sweden and could work here as well.

For the very long term, the federal government should also invest in research for innovative waste management technologies, including vitrification — stabilizing waste in glass — and new drilling techniques that will allow us to bury waste deeper and more cheaply than Yucca Mountain, as well as in advanced waste recycling techniques. Many of these new technological solutions are entirely compatible with long-term decentralized waste disposal.

Communities and states that don’t want to continue to store waste would be able to send their waste to places that do, allowing for a long-term consolidation of storage at locales that want to be hubs for spent fuel storage and potentially for new next-generation small modular reactors. The sites, after all, are secure, connected to the grid, and already host both spent fuel and, often, existing reactors.

The alternative is more of the same. A nuclear industry hobbled by the lack of a formal and workable storage solution. Worsening liability for American taxpayers. And endless political gridlock that serves neither those seeking a long-term solution nor states and communities that don’t wish to host spent fuel any longer.