Is Obama serious about nuclear power or not?

In his handling of the nuclear waste issue, President Obama is sending contradictory messages about his commitment to the expansion of nuclear power as a way of diminishing the nation's dependence on foreign oil.

On the one hand the president says he will pursue alternatives to fossil fuels, including nuclear energy, with the vigor of a war effort. But on the other hand he has rejected the long-planned solution to dealing with nuclear waste, a policy shift that threatens to undermine his efforts to expand nuclear power.

His policy on nuclear waste appears driven not by science, but to appease the powerful Senate majority leader who faces a difficult re-election. And in the process the president is ready to flush away billions of dollars collected from electric ratepayers.

It was long-established policy under successive presidents to develop at the remote Yucca Mountain site in Nevada a repository for high-level nuclear waste. This would include the spent nuclear fuel rods from power plants, along with other nuclear waste materials that produce dangerous levels of radiation for thousands of years.

Congress approved of this plan and in June 2008 the Department of Energy filed an application with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to begin moving waste materials to Yucca. The DOE spent more than $10 billion studying and developing the mountain for this purpose.

But the president wants to abandon that solution and start over.

Electricity customers, who pay one-tenth of a cent per kilowatt-hour into the Nuclear Waste Fund, largely financed the program. Utilities will transfer another $770 million in ratepayer money into the fund this year.

And the waste of money does not end there. Federal law contractually required the DOE to begin taking the waste in February 1998. Utilities have filed more than 70 lawsuits against the government for breach of contract, with $1.3 billion paid out by the government so far. The Department of Justice warns the liability will top $12 billion by 2020 without a facility to take the waste.

Why has the Obama administration abandoned the Yucca plan on the brink of gaining NRC approval? Simply put, the Yucca plan is unpopular with Nevada voters. Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid, the Nevada Democrat, has long fought to stop it. And Sen. Reid was a key, early supporter of President Obama is his run for the presidency. The administration's abandoning of Yucca smacks of political payback.

On Tuesday a three-judge panel - the NRC's Atomic Safety and Licensing Board - handed the administration an embarrassing defeat when it said Energy Secretary Steven Chu did not have the authority to withdraw the Yucca application. Congress, it noted, directed the application filing.

"Unless Congress directs otherwise, DOE may not single-handedly derail the legislated decision-making process by withdrawing the application," the panel ruled.

It also noted that the administration conceded "the application is not flawed nor the site unsafe."

The DOE will now appeal to the five-member Nuclear Regulatory Commission itself. And, practically speaking, the project cannot go forward without administration support. The president placed no money in the budget for it.

Meanwhile the nuclear waste accumulates at Millstone Power Station in Waterford. It also remains left behind in storage casks at the site of the former Connecticut Yankee nuclear plant in Haddam. Nationally, engineers have filled more than 800 casks with 14,000 metric tons of waste, while 49,000 metric tons sit in spent-fuel pools designed for temporary storage.

Critics are sure to point to the lack of storage options in opposing new plants. Meanwhile the administration dawdles and awaits word from a study commission.

That sounds more like political appeasement than a war for energy independence.

The editorial board is composed of the publisher and four journalists of varied editing and reporting backgrounds. The board's discussions and information gained from its meetings with political, civic, and business leaders drive the institutional voice of The Day, as expressed in its editorials. The editorial department operates separately from the newsroom.

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