Congress has pushed through a series of five stopgap measures to fund the government, and is now in final negotiations for a trillion-dollar omnibus spending bill to cover the rest of the fiscal year.
For an hour on Monday night, a group of congressmen from both parties and from all across the U.S. took the floor to remind the nation and their colleagues why funding for nuclear waste management needs to be in that bill. Or, as one congressman put it, “why we need to get our act together.”
Nuclear power plants today provide roughly 20 percent of the electricity Americans use every year. But nuclear energy produces nuclear waste, which must be stored in a secure place.
To address the storage issue, Congress directed the Energy Department to begin collecting nuclear waste by 1998 and chose Yucca Mountain in Nevada as the site for a permanent repository, pending approval from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Yet 20 years later, Americans are still waiting.
The Energy Department has yet to begin collecting nuclear waste from these power plants, as required by law, and Congress has not appropriated funds to complete the Yucca Mountain permit review since 2010, despite the Trump administration’s request for funds to do so.
The fault ultimately lies with Congress. Its failure to direct a permit review or establish new policy only delays nuclear waste collection by the Energy Department. Congressional feet-dragging on Yucca Mountain has also brought heavy costs, and will continue to do so.
Costs to Taxpayers
Because the Energy Department has failed to collect waste from nuclear power plants as promised by law, taxpayers have had to cover over $6.2 billion in legal damages to those plants.
Today, the federal government remains liable for over 76,000 tons of commercial nuclear waste currently located on site at nuclear power plants. This liability grows as America’s nuclear power reactors produce roughly 2,000 tons of nuclear waste every year.
The Energy Department projects future liability to be $24.7 billion, but this is misleading because it assumes an interim storage facility is approved by Congress, sited, and built by 2021. The nuclear industry estimates at least $50 billion in liabilities. Taxpayers will have to cover these costs.
Inaction is also delaying the cleanup of radioactive waste from Cold War and World War II weapons sites and nuclear-powered naval vessels. The Energy Department made agreements with states that agreed to house this waste, but those agreements cannot be completely met without a place to store the waste permanently.
The Energy Department estimates total taxpayer liability for this cleanup mission to be $371.7 billion.
Costs to Energy Consumers
Nuclear power companies and their customers have paid into a nuclear waste fund to finance the Energy Department’s nuclear waste services. That fund has accumulated $38.8 billion in fees and interest. Those fees come in as mandatory receipts, which immediately go to writing off federal spending on mandatory programs that are unrelated to nuclear waste.
Put simply, customers have been financing programs like Social Security and welfare rather than the nuclear waste collection they agreed to pay for.
Time to Move the Ball Forward
A nuclear waste repository could possibly have been opened as early as 2017, had past congresses and presidential administrations acted promptly when the Energy Department first submitted its application and assuming the Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved a permit.
Congress must now at least provide enough funding to complete the Yucca Mountain permit review. Finishing the review does not commit Congress to building the facility. It merely empowers Congress, the administration, the state of Nevada, and the nuclear industry to make informed decisions about how to proceed.
As Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., opened Monday evening’s floor time, up until now “political science has deprived the public of the actual science.” It’s time Congress let the scientific discussion be had.
Congress should not pass up another opportunity to move the ball forward on nuclear waste management. Kicking the can down the road will only create more uncertainty, and leave Americans with a heavier bill.