Addressing nuclear waste policy is one of the most important things Congress can do to improve the competitiveness of the US nuclear industry, protect taxpayers, and reduce federal spending. So it naturally caught attention when President Trump took to Twitter on Thursday to opine about a congressionally designated nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada:
“Nevada, I hear you on Yucca Mountain and my Administration will RESPECT you! Congress and previous Administrations have long failed to find lasting solutions – my Administration is committed to exploring innovative approaches – I’m confident we can get it done!”
Up to now, President Trump’s budgets have requested just enough funds to finish the licensing review of a repository at Yucca Mountain.
But for 10 years, Congress has failed to either pass new legislation or appropriate funds so the administration can follow the Nuclear Waste Policy Act , which designates Yucca as a national repository. Congress’ negligence has cost constituents $8 billion in lawsuits already—exactly what the law was designed to prevent—and is on track to cost tens of billions more in the years to come.
So, the president’s frustration is deeply merited.
Unfortunately, the administration’s upcoming budget request does not include funds to finish the license review of a potential repository at Yucca Mountain. Finishing the review is a relatively small step that would inform decisions, no matter what long-term nuclear waste disposal options are ultimately pursued. It does not inescapably commit Congress to building the repository without further appropriations—something Congress has been quite adept at withholding.
Importantly, it also would let the voices of all Nevadans be heard. Most of Nevada’s congressional delegation opposes a Yucca Mountain repository, but funding completion of the review, and review only, is consistent with their demands for a thorough process with state input, and for further adjudicating concerns in a formal setting that the Department of Energy must address.
Even so, President Trump is right to seek solutions, and his budget provides an opportunity to reopen the conversation.
Nearly every feature of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act has ground to a halt, which should be no surprise given contemporaries of the 1982 Act immediately spotted some of the problems that continue to plague the project. Decades of dysfunction in Washington have demonstrated the federal government’s inability to manage nuclear waste rationally, economically, or at all, and the sticking points are the same today as when the law was passed.
The problem may not be Yucca, but rather the federal government’s role of being solely responsible for collecting and disposing of waste from commercial nuclear power plants, which are responsible only for financing.
Indeed, the track record does not speak well for a government-centric model—the few policies implemented to manage high-level radioactive waste in the U.S. have failed.
And as experience has shown, states have displayed little trust in the federal government to keep its promises or act in their interests. Neither Nevada nor any other state has wanted to sign up “to dance with a 900-pound gorilla” — the federal government in which they have little trust and with which they don’t have power to negotiate — to quote former Wyoming Gov. Mike Sullivan. By 1979, 17 states had passed legislation demanding equal or final say in federal decisions to dispose of nuclear waste.
Since then, proposals made in Congress and by previous administrations have revolved around modifying where to site a repository but keeping the same basic structure of federal management in place.
Few have questioned the basic premise of federal responsibility to manage nuclear waste, but that is precisely what is needed.
A policy with more logically aligned industry, local, and federal responsibilities has promise given experience in Finland, where the first geologic repository for high-level nuclear waste from nuclear power plants is currently being constructed. Finland’s program overcame the same hurdles that have stymied the U.S.—financing, federalism, local consent, program stability.
Critical to that success was the fact that Finland’s nuclear industry is by law responsible for financing, siting, constructing, and operating intermediate and long-term nuclear waste storage. Industry had to build trust with the host communities through long-term outreach, education, and mutually agreeable terms, and the Finish government has had to fulfill its separate responsibility to develop and enforce regulatory standards.
In the U.S., nuclear waste management policy and the roles of industry, states, and the federal government need to be re-imagined. The federal government is not the only legitimate or best entity to dispose of nuclear waste from commercial nuclear power plants. Ultimately, a real solution comes from giving the nuclear industry responsibility and introducing market forces into waste management solutions.
Congress should view the president’s budget as an invitation.