Let's get this straight: Barack Obama wants to build more nuclear power plants. More nuclear power plants will generate more radioactive waste. The nation doesn't have a place to store that waste long-term. The nation does, however, have a plan to build a nuclear repository at Nevada's Yucca Mountain where highly radioactive waste from the nation's nuclear plants, from its plutonium-production facilities at Savannah River in South Carolina, and from Hanford can be stored until hell freezes over.
The Yucca Mountain plan has been in the works for the past 30 years. Nevada doesn't want the repository, but then, neither does anyone else. High-level nuclear waste creates the ultimate NIMBY issue. Now, following up on a campaign promise made in Nevada, the Obama administration has filed a motion to withdraw its application for a license to build the Yucca Mountain repository. "This is great news,"said Senate majority leader Harry Reid of Nevada, adding that the decidion "prevents Nevada from becoming the nation's nuclear dumping ground."
The Department of Energy has asked the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board to dismiss its license application "with prejudice," which would mean the feds could never go back and resubmit it This would create an enormous policy vacuum. The federal government has no Plan B. Without a dump at Yucca Mountain, the nuclear waste generated over half a century at Hanford and all that other radioactive garbage will have to stay more or less where it is, until the feds come up with another place to dump it.
As Washington Senator Patty Murray told Energy Secretary Steven Chu at a March 4 committee hearing, "Congress, independent studies, and previous administrations have all pointed to, voted for, and funded Yucca Mountain as the nation's best option for a nuclear repository. And, in concert with those decisions, billions of dollars and countless work hours have been spent at Hanford and nuclear waste sites across the country in an effort to treat and package nuclear waste that will be sent there. Without a repository, those sites and the communities that support them have been left in limbo."
The utility industry, which would be left in the same position, is very unhappy, The Wall Street Journal reports.
Of course, even critics who live outside Nevada have long pointed out that Yucca Mountain is a flawed site, where over the coming millennia water could get in. Of course it could. Over the half-life of plutonium, nothing can be guaranteed. But still, all that waste exists, and somebody has to make a decision to put it somewhere. Without Yucca, neither the waste to be vitrified during the Hanford cleanup — which is still years away from happening — nor the waste from past, present, and future nuclear reactors has a place to go.
Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna observes that "it seems completely inconsistent to shut down Yucca . .&thinsp'. at the same time the administration is" encouraging the rebirth of commercial nuclear power.
McKenna argues that it's also illegal. His office has filed a petition to intervene in the licensing process. It argues that Congress required the executive branch to start the licensing process for Yucca Mountain, and only Congress can tell it to stop. Administrative agencies have no legal authority to halt the process on their own.
The state will also file a suit in a federal appellate court; it hasn't yet decided which one. Already, the state of South Carolina has filed suit in the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, while Aiken County, South Carolina, has filed a separate suit in the D.C. circuit. McKenna says that the attorneys general of several other states are considering legal action, too, but their states are negotiating with the federal government over other energy issues, and they have to figure out whether or not Yucca is an issue worth jeopardizing those negotiations. Washington is just "waiting to see if they come in," McKenna says. If they do, the licensing process seems "the logical place for them to come in to begin with."
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