Nuclear power is emerging as a solution to not only global energy demand but also America’s energy concerns for clean, safe affordable energy. The 104 reactors in the United States alone supply the country with 20% of its electricity. The same reactors also generated nearly 56,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel that remains on site in 39 states. Managing this spent fuel has become the subject of both scientific and political debate.

The Heritage Foundation hosted an event titled, “Yucca Mountain and the Nuclear Renaissance: Assessing the Safety and Viability of a Vital National Asset” to address these points of contention. The event featured keynote speaker Edward F. Sproat III, Director of the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management for the Department of Energy. Following Mr. Sproat was a distinguished panel of three experts with unique, specialized knowledge on the issue of Yucca Mountain. The event can be viewed here.

One point that was repeated amongst the panel was that while recycling spent fuel or placing it in interim storage may have a role to play, America’s focus must remain on opening Yucca Mountain in a timely fashion. Despite whatever other technologies are developed, there is an enduring need for permanent geologic storage.

On the technical side, although there is a significant amount of spent nuclear fuel, it is technologically feasible to manage. There is nothing scientifically barring legislation to open Yucca Mountain. There are volumes of technical data being prepared that attests to the safety of the repository. This data has been generated by numerous sources, including industry as well as local and federal government entities. Moreover, technology is rapidly developing that permits a more thorough understanding of how different recycling and reprocessing applications will affect Yucca’s long-term viability. National Laboratories are studying how to treat spent nuclear fuel and how recycling and a permanent geological repository can work together.

The legislative process is moving forward as well. In January, Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) introduced the Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act of 2008 (S. 2551) to help to provide the flexibility and clarification for the United States government to set rational policy for managing spent nuclear fuel. As The Heritage Foundation’s Jack Spencer notes, one of the key provisions of the Amendments Act is a phased licensing system for spent nuclear fuel. He asserts that:

The initial phase would last for 300 years. During this time, spent fuel would be placed in the Yucca repository, remain retrievable, and be actively monitored. The license could be amended through a process that would take place at least every 50 years to take advantage of operational improvements, technolog­ical advances, and safety innovations. The reposi­tory would then be permanently sealed, thus concluding the second and final phase.”

Finally, the panel addressed questions of alternative locations for potential repositories. The conclusion was that a comprehensive vetting process had already taken place that included considerations of 37 other states. For better or worse, the Yucca location was chosen. Now, having spent billions of dollars on Yucca, without any scientific or technical reason to not go forward on the project, it would make little sense to stop the project given its enduring value to the nation.

It is inevitable that permanent geological storage will play a role in closing the fuel cycle; yet, political and public choice hurdles remain. With the potential for new reactor construction in the United States and the 56,000 tons of nuclear waste already sitting in the United States, Yucca Mountain must be a priority in moving forward with commercial nuclear energy.

Note: This is the author’s analysis of the panel’s conclusions and should not be attributed to any of the panel participants. A link to an archived version of the panel is provided where the panelist’s remarks can be viewed directly.