Another Step Forward on Yucca Mountain

Nicolas Loris /

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. Even after used nuclear fuel is recycled, there will still be some left over to be put in a repository like Yucca Mountain. And there’s national defense waste that cannot be recycled and must be placed in a geologic repository; thus, it’s not just an issue for nuclear industries but also for our national government.

Over the past year, however, legislators have taken some steps in the right direction when it comes to opening Yucca. In June, the Department of Energy submitted a license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The plan, a necessary step to open Yucca, details a way to safely store and isolate nuclear waste. But the earliest date it can be open is 2017.

Just yesterday, U.S. Senator James Inhofe (R-Okla.), Senator Larry Craig (R-ID) and Senator Mike Crapo (R-ID) have filed an amendment to the Defense Authorization bill that would restore $50 million cut in Defense Contribution for Yucca.

Senator Inhofe said,

The United States Senate needs to continue authorizes our contribution to the repository program to cover the costs of defense-related nuclear wastes that require disposal. The request was asked by for the President and included by the House – the Senate needs to do the same. The amendment we filed today would do restore the $50 million dollar cut. The repository should have opened in 1998, but instead, it is over 20 years behind schedule.”

He’s exactly right; it’s the government’s fault Yucca isn’t open. The federal government has collected approximately $27 billion from nuclear companies, but the nuclear waste is still sitting at reactor sites.

Needless to say, the nuclear companies that have paid into the Nuclear Waste Fund with rate payers’ money weren’t thrilled about this. Consequently, they sued the government. As a result, taxpayers have already paid $94 million in lawyer expenses and $290 million in damages. The government is appealing another $420 million award. Long-term liability projections are astronomical, reaching $7 billion by 2017 and $11 billion by 2020.

To make a long story short, the system is broken and the taxpayers are paying for it. And while opening Yucca Mountain is an essential step, overhauling the whole used nuclear fuel management system in the U.S. is also an essential step.

The best way to do it is to get it out of the government’s hands. A free-market approach to managing nuclear waste is the best way to ensure that the commercial nuclear industry will be sustainable in the long run. Among the steps needed to privatize the system, as outlined by Heritage Research Fellow Jack Spencer, include:

• Creating the legal framework that allows the private sector to price geologic storage as a com¬modity;
• Empowering the private sector to manage used fuel;
• Repealing the 70,000-ton limitation on the Yucca Mountain repository and instead let technology, science, and physical capacity determine the appropriate limit;
• Creating a private entity that is representative of but independent from nuclear operators to manage Yucca Mountain;
• Repealing the mil, abolish the Nuclear Waste Fund, and transfer the remaining funds to a private entity to cover the expenses of constructing Yucca Mountain; and
• Limiting the federal government’s role to providing oversight, basic research, and development and taking title of spent fuel upon repository decommissioning.

The full paper can be found here. It won’t be easy. But if we’re serious about nuclear energy meeting energy demands and environmental goals, it is without a doubt necessary.