Federal Court Judge Brett Kavanaugh has ordered the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to resume its evaluation of the Department of Energy's licensing application to build a repository for nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. His ruling was expected, given the NRC's unconstitutional refusal to evaluate DOE's licensing application. But it was also a stinging rebuke to Nevada Sen. Harry Reid who has blocked funding for the Yucca Mountain project
The Nuclear Waste Strategy Coalition and the Nuclear Energy Institute, representing nuclear utilities and reactor builders, have urged Congress to provide funding for the Yucca Mountain project beyond the NRC's licensing review.
Simply put, money isn't the problem. Rather, Congress has blocked all appropriations for the project. Yet consumers continue to pay for a nuclear-waste program that has become inordinately expensive and ludicrously ineffective. For this, we can thank Senator Reid and President Obama.
As users of nuclear-generated electricity, we pay a fee of one-tenth of a cent per kilowatt-hour, an amount that Congress set in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982. Over the past 30 years, users of nuclear-generated electricity in New England have contributed $898.3 million to the Waste Fund -- and the amount continues to rise each year. Nationally, the payments have reached $35.7 billion, including interest.
Yet we are shelling out money for construction of a deep-geologic waste repository that might never get built. President Obama abandoned the Yucca Mountain project in Nevada four years ago, ending all work on a waste repository, a project that Congress authorized, after more than $10 billion had been spent on site preparation and engineering. As a result, 4,420 metric tons of used fuel from electricity production remains in storage at five operating nuclear plants and four decommissioned plants in New England.
Across the country, about 69,700 tons are stored at nuclear plants -- which exceeds the legal limit of 63,000 tons that Congress placed on Yucca Mountain. Another 3,000 tons of used fuel is produced at nuclear power plants each year. Additionally, there are 600,000 gallons of high-level waste left over from the reprocessing of used fuel at a facility in West Valley, N.Y., near Buffalo. And far larger quantities (four to 10 times more) of high-level waste from the defense program are stored in underground tanks and steel casks at government sites in South Carolina, Idaho and Washington State. All of this used fuel and high-level waste requires centralized storage at one or more repositories.
Because it has no equal as a source of zero-carbon energy, nuclear power will be needed for electricity generation well into the future. As a result, there will be more used fuel left over from electricity production, making resumption of the Yucca Mountain project all the more important.
Breaking the political impasse over the project might be possible if legal action were to be taken to cut off consumer payments to the trust fund. The National Association of State Utility Regulators and the Nuclear Energy Institute have asked for a court decision to suspend payments until Congress provides the needed funds for resumption of NRC licensing and work at Yucca Mountain.
Twelve states have banned the construction of new nuclear plants until the waste problem is resolved. We cannot allow the lack of progress on waste disposal to stall the use of nuclear energy that's needed for base-load electricity and the battle against climate change. By halting payments to the Waste Fund, Senator Reid might get the message.
Bob Leach is a retired radiation protection manager and a certified senior reactor operator. He lives in Brattleboro.