Obama wants more nuclear power, but what about the waste?

The administration is trying to get out of plans for storing waste at Nevada's Yucca Mountain, at the same time as the president wants more nuclear plants to generate electricity. Attorney General Rob McKenna is dubious about this, and where it might leave Hanford.
Crosscut archive image.

Spent nuclear fuel, stored underwater at Hanford's K-East Basin (photo undated)

The administration is trying to get out of plans for storing waste at Nevada's Yucca Mountain, at the same time as the president wants more nuclear plants to generate electricity. Attorney General Rob McKenna is dubious about this, and where it might leave Hanford.

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."

Given that the Obama administration seems sold on the virtues of nuclear power, does its decision to scrap Yucca Mountain make any sense? It could if the administration wants spent nuclear fuel reprocessed, rather than entombed. Reprocessing is a proven technology. The French have been doing it for years. The problem is that it pulls out plutonium, which can be used in nuclear weapons. Therefore, it arguably increases the threat of nuclear proliferation.

The Obama administration hasn't discussed reprocessing as an alternative to Yucca Mountain. But George W. Bush touted recycling, pointing to France as a good example. Nuclear boosters reportedly were urging him on. Under the Bush theory, if stable countries such as our own reprocessed waste and gave nuclear fuel to less stable countries on the condition that we get the spent fuel back, it would actually make proliferation less likely. But you'd still wind up with a lot of plutonium; you'd probably wind up building fast reactors that could burn it.

And you'd still have all that radioactive garbage left over from a half-century of producing plutonium for nuclear bombs. "I think reprocessing ought to be developed in this country," McKenna says, but "at the same time, we have a lot of waste that's beyond the reprocessing stage.'ꀝ

Under the Tri-Party Agreement that the state signed with the the Department of Energy and the EPA in 1989, Energy must get all that high-level radioactive waste out of Hanford storage tanks and embed it in glass at the Waste Treatment Plant currently under construction. The original agreement didn't require or even mention Yucca Mountain and neither does the amended agreement, negotiated last year and still not final. The Tri-Party Agreement therefore isn't an issue in the state's Yucca Mountain licensing case or its pending challenge in federal court.

But the death of the Yucca project might very well have an impact on the agreed-to cleanup schedule — if the intent of the schedule is to get all the high-level waste not only out of the old rusty tanks but also out of the state. "The cleanup would proceed," without Yucca, McKenna says. "The only question is where the high-level waste would be stored. We have always had the understanding that it wouldn't be at Hanford."

The new timeline calls for all the high-level waste at Hanford to be treated by 2045. If the administration succeeds in withdrawing its license application, waits for the recently established Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future to come up with an alternative, and relies on future administrations to navigate the scientific, legal and political labyrinth that will confront any new choice, then — if the history of the Yucca Mountain project is any guide — McKenna says, it "sets us back a minimum of 30 years."


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About the Authors & Contributors

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan is an author, attorney, and writer of many articles about Northwest environmental issues.