The Magazine

Will Harry Reid's Dream Come True?

The majority leader's quest to kill America's nuclear waste repository continues.

Mar 9, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 24 • By MAX SCHULZ
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Not so fast. Making sure construction doesn't occur during the Obama presidency isn't the same as shuttering and dismantling the facility (though repository construction hasn't begun, Department of Energy scientists and engineers continue to study the site). It appears the Obama team is happy to deprive Yucca Mountain of money--fulfilling a campaign pledge--while leaving the problem for future presidents and senators to handle. Indeed, there are practical complications that would prevent the Obama administration from doing anything other than that. Completely shutting down Yucca would be too costly, politically as well as financially.

Under the Nuclear Waste Act, the federal government has a legal obligation to collect and dispose of the spent fuel from the nation's 104 commercial nuclear reactors. To pay for it, the government began levying a surcharge on electricity generated from nuclear power in the early 1980s. Nearly $30 billion has been collected so far, a third of which has been spent on feasibility studies that have convinced government scientists that their plans for Yucca are sound.

The process has dragged out far longer than anyone expected. The law required the Department of Energy to begin accepting utilities' nuclear waste in 1998. The Energy Department's new target date for opening Yucca is after 2020, though officials have admitted even that date is unrealistic.

While waiting for the feds to get their act together, nuclear plant operators have been storing their waste in temporary facilities. All told, there are more than 120 temporary locations holding nuclear waste in 39 states. As a stopgap measure this has helped prevent the shutdown of the nuclear industry, which provides 20 percent of America's electric power. But many of these temporary storage pools and casks are nearing capacity. Plans to license and build new nuclear plants for the first time in decades may hinge, moreover, on a resolution to the waste issue.

The failure to have the repository substantially completed amounts to a default by the federal government on its legal obligation. Several electric utilities have sued the government over failure to accept their spent fuel under the terms of the Nuclear Waste Act, and courts have found the Department of Energy in partial breach of its obligations. But monetary judgments have been suspended since DOE can plausibly claim its attempts to fulfill those obligations were slowed by congressional intransigence (notably Harry Reid's).

Last year the Energy Department finally submitted its 8,600-page license application to build the repository to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, a critical step in the long journey to opening the facility. The NRC likely will take four years studying the scientific and safety issues before rendering a verdict.

In theory, Obama could withdraw the license application, which would go a long way to killing the -project. But not even the most ardent Yucca opponents think that will happen. Withdrawing the application would automatically place the federal government in full breach of its waste-retrieval obligations. Were that to happen, Washington would owe tens of billions of dollars in liabilities to commercial nuclear plant operators, yet would have us no closer to resolving the waste conundrum. That could stop the nuclear renaissance in its tracks, something for which Obama presumably does not want to be blamed.

President Obama's best bet is to ignore Harry Reid and refrain from making any significant decision about Yucca Mountain until the NRC rules on the project's scientific merits and safety concerns. Democrats have spent the last eight years charging the Bush administration with politicizing science. What would it say about Obama's inaugural address pledge to "restore science to its rightful place" if he were to disregard the scientific assessment of the NRC's technical experts in favor of the political pleadings of a lawyer from Searchlight?

Max Schulz is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.