Revive Yucca Mountain plan and buy time with interim storage
The intentionally becalmed move of spent nuclear fuel to a permanent repository from "temporary" storage at the power plants where it was generated finally got a nudge forward last week. The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill calling for one or more way stations on the road to underground storage at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.
Millstone Power Station in Waterford and the closed Connecticut Yankee plant in Haddam Neck are two of about 100 facilities across the country that have been storing nuclear waste for 20 years past the federal government's own deadline to move the dangerous material to Yucca Mountain.
The bipartisan Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act would reactivate steps to license and construct storage at Yucca Mountain, but also to allow removal of the material from the current, temporary sites before the permanent federal facility starts operations there or anywhere. Licensing of privately owned interim storage sites would get the spent fuel away from the populated areas where it is marooned.
Such facilities are a far safer, saner alternative to 100 or so local sites and could be licensed in just a few years. Proposals from New Mexico and Texas are awaiting consideration, and if approved would remove material first from closed plants like Connecticut Yankee.
The inherent downside to the plan is the obvious precedent of looking the other way once a temporary solution is in place. The interim sites should be robust enough to safely store the material through unavoidable delays of years or even decades, but interim has to mean interim.
In the 31 years — almost a third of a century — since Congress approved Yucca Mountain as a site that could house radioactive material for thousands of years, the political will to carry that out has continued to waver. NIMBY — not in my backyard — is a natural viewpoint about locating such dangerous material, but the remoteness of the mountain from most human habitation is a major reason for its selection. That's utterly different from NIMBY in Waterford, Connecticut, where the storage is on the edge of town, or from much larger, populous states like Illinois or California, some of whose congressional representatives pushed the new bill forward.
Nevada's two U.S. senators have said the House bill is "going nowhere in the Senate," which is what former Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nevada, was able to accomplish for many years by working with the Obama administration. Underground work by the Department of Energy inside the mountain has created a series of tunnels and storage spaces at a cost of $15 billion. President Trump and Energy Secretary Rick Perry have requested $120 million to restart licensing procedures and fund interim storage, but up until now Congress has not authorized it.
Stalling or stopping the process will just pile on the other kind of waste generated by three decades of delay: costs. The federal government has paid about $6 billion in settlements to nuclear generating companies that have had to build on-site storage because the spent fuel had nowhere else to go. Connecticut Yankee has successfully sued the government for $200 million since 2005 to keep the contents of 40 dry cask storage containers secure. Millstone, owned and operated by Dominion, has 31 dry casks and additional fuel in its cooling pools. Suing the feds has become a periodic, productive exercise for them.
Connecticut Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy and others have argued for "consensus siting" of a repository in a state and a community interested in the economic benefits of hosting a federal facility. Consensus ought to work well for an interim site, but if Yucca Mountain is to be abandoned, the $15 billion investment will be wasted.
We urge the Senate to agree to licensing the interim storage and developing the Yucca Mountain site as a permanent solution. Moving the material cross country will require sophisticated, multi-pronged security measures and will add to the costs, but this is a move that is way overdue. Second district Congressman Joe Courtney, who hailed the bill as a significant moment in addressing growing frustration from host communities around the country, suggested that transportation of the spent fuel to interim storage might benefit from what the Navy has learned about moving radioactive material for and from its nuclear forces. By all means: all hands on deck.
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