Yucca is obvious answer to nuclear waste question

The nation has no other viable options to Yucca Mountain for the permanent, safe storage of used nuclear fuel. The House and Senate need to find the political will to push past Nevada’s understandable opposition and authorize the transfer of the radioactive waste to the site developed for storing it. Connecticut’s elected leaders in Washington should be at the forefront of that effort.

As things stand now, the United States has more than 100 high-level nuclear waste sites scattered across the nation. They are at the locations of both operating and decommissioned nuclear plants.

Millstone Power Station in Waterford has filled 31 massive concrete and steel canisters with spent fuel rods, transferred from storage pools at the reactors, which engineers never intended for long-term storage.

In Haddam Neck, the Connecticut Yankee nuclear plant is a memory, having ceased operation in 1996 and with the demolition of the reactor dome completed in 2006. But the highly radioactive nuclear waste remains at the site, as with Millstone, safely — for now — shielded in protective canisters.

The longer the nation fails to deal with the situation, the greater the chance these nuclear station sites will become the de facto solution for waste storage. In the near future, that probably does not present a great danger. The waste is stored in robust containers, behind protective fencing and under guard.

But this material will remain highly and toxically radioactive for thousands of years. Much can change over that scale of time. Consider the ruins of once-great ancient civilizations. Assuring the safe storage and monitoring of this waste in more than a hundred locations, well into an unforeseeable future, is impossible.

While no solution may be foolproof, entombing the waste deep inside the dry, remotely located Yucca Mountain is the far better option.

In 1987, Congress selected the mountain location for a national high-level nuclear waste depository and set it on a schedule to begin accepting spent nuclear fuel — consisting of large bundles of uranium pellet-filled fuel rods — in 1998.

The Department of Energy expended about $15 billion to have a series of tunnels drilled into the mountain and constructing the storage areas that await the containers filled with the radioactive waste.

In 2008, despite strong opposition from Nevada and several environmental groups, President George W. Bush instructed the DOE to submit an application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to apply for a license to begin operations. But politics intervened with the election of President Obama, who aligned with then Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada in bringing the plans to a halt.

President Trump and Energy Secretary Rick Perry have sought to revive the plan, asking for $120 million to restart licensing and provide interim storage while negotiations begin to revive the Yucca project.

The Obama administration pursued "consent-based siting," hoping to find one or more communities willing to accept such a storage facility in return for various incentives. Companies in Texas and New Mexico responded and could provide the interim storage so that nuclear waste could be moved from current locations pending Yucca operations.

Congress set up a Nuclear Waste Fund to pay for the project, collecting a surcharge from utilities, which in turn assessed ratepayers, with $25 billion collected and counting. In return, Congress assured the nuclear utilities the DOE would have a place to move the radioactive waste ready by 1998.

When the DOE failed to hold up its end of the bargain, the utilities began suing and the courts have consistently backed them, ordering the department to pay damages to cover the cost of waste storage at the plant sites, a figure the DOE estimates will reach $23 billion. The industry has cited total damages of $50 billion if nothing changes.

Transporting the nuclear waste cross country to an interim facility and then to Nevada will present a big challenge, but a surmountable one. And we return to the fact no one is presenting a viable alternative. Turning places like Waterford and Haddam Neck into permanent high-level radioactive waste storage facilities is not an acceptable option.

Editor's note: This editorial was updated with new information.

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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