Washington Examiner

Trump has few alternatives to Yucca

The Trump administration bailing on Nevada’s Yucca Mountain as the nation’s long-delayed nuclear waste storage site has exposed the reality that the United States does not have viable alternative solutions.

“It’s clear we don’t have a way forward for a repository of nuclear waste at the moment,” said Rodney Ewing, a professor of nuclear security and geological sciences at Stanford University.

Until recently, the Trump administration had proposed funding to restart the licensing of Yucca Mountain despite a political onslaught from Nevada’s political delegation fighting against the site ever being completed.

President Trump, due to face voters this year in politically important Nevada, flipped the script with a tweet this month that seemed to take Yucca Mountain off the table. He said previous administrations “failed to find lasting solutions,” and he committed to exploring other “innovative approaches.”

His subsequent budget proposal vaguely pledged to initiate “processes to develop alternative solutions” by working with states and other stakeholders.

The administration plans to form an interagency working group to determine more precise next steps. In the few details described in the budget, the White House indicated that Trump supports the implementation of an interim storage program and research on “alternative technologies” to handle nuclear waste.

Democrats running for president also uniformly oppose Yucca Mountain, but they have not clearly articulated an alternative.

Under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, the federal government promised nuclear power plants that it would handle the waste. The law, amended five years later, directed the Energy Department to take possession of the nation’s spent nuclear fuel and dispose of it in a deep geological repository at Yucca Mountain.

“We have seen every kind of ‘other than Yucca’ proposal,” said Jordan Haverly, director of energy and environmental policy for Republican Rep. John Shimkus of Illinois, a longtime Yucca supporter. “All of them talk about these great new ideas, but eventually get to a point where Yucca is still the law as mandated by the Nuclear Waste Policy Act.”

Indeed, alternatives to handle the nation’s 80,000 metric tons of radioactive spent fuel from commercial nuclear power plants have not yet borne fruit.

Two private companies have proposed building underground storage sites to house waste, known as “consolidated interim storage,” temporarily. One site is pegged for Andrews County in West Texas and another for southeastern New Mexico. The sites would take the spent fuel sitting idle at nuclear plants across 39 states.

Interim storage, however, is not currently authorized under federal law. A bipartisan bill introduced last year, the Nuclear Waste Policy Amendment Act, would direct the Energy Department to create a temporary storage program until Yucca Mountain is ready if it ever is.

The legislation stalled after passing the House Energy and Commerce Committee. A previous version of the bill passed the House in 2018 but stood no chance in the Senate with Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and other Democrats declaring it “dead on arrival.”

While both proposed interim sites have made progress on obtaining necessary permits, they face similar challenges to Yucca Mountain because they would require state and local buy-in to move forward.

There is some level of local and state support in New Mexico and Texas for hosting nuclear waste storage, considering the jobs that could come from it, but other top officials are opposed.

New Mexico’s first-term Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has blastedthe site, saying it poses a significant risk to the state’s environment and economy. Her Republican predecessor, Susana Martinez, backed the project. Meanwhile, Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has tweeted about not wanting his state to be “the radioactive waste dumping ground of America.”

Critics of interim storage worry the targeted final destination, Yucca Mountain, will never open. If that were to happen, the temporary facilities could become de facto permanent storage facilities, a task they would not be set up to do.

“Parking nuclear waste on a cement pad without any long-term plan to dispose of it makes no sense,” said Matthew McKinzie, director of the nuclear program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The Trump administration, along with congressional allies and some right-leaning groups, has supported boosting research into technologies that can reprocess spent fuel. Reprocessing, known as “recycling” by proponents, involves separating plutonium and uranium from spent fuel to make new fuel that can be used again.

Rep. Mark Amodei of Nevada has proposed increasing federal funding for ongoing research into nuclear fuel reprocessing at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

“The president has created an opening here, so let’s figure out how to fill it,” Amodei, the only Republican in Nevada’s congressional delegation, told the Washington Examiner. “One of the criticisms on Yucca Mountain is Nevadans don’t like people from 49 other states, much less D.C., telling us what to do. Let’s come up with an alternative instead of waiting for what that means.”

But nuclear experts say reprocessing faces economic and nonproliferation concerns and does not prevent the production of nuclear waste.

“There are no alternatives to geological disposal of high-level nuclear waste,” said Allison Macfarlane, a former chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission who is now a professor at George Washington University. “No matter what you do to it, you still need a geological repository. Reprocessing will produce high-level nuclear waste, which will need a repository.”

Macfarlane contributed to a 2018 report, led by Ewing, that recommended moving responsibility for the handling, transportation, and disposal of nuclear waste to an independent nonprofit organization owned by utilities that run nuclear power plants.

Reassigning responsibility to a new utility-owned organization outside the federal government would require an act of Congress.

Ewing and Macfarlane said removing the federal government from the job would “eliminate political fluctuations” in policy and put the onus on utilities that currently have little incentive to contribute to a long-term solution for nuclear waste.

As it is, utilities are receiving millions of dollars in damages from the federal government as a result of suing for costs associated with storing waste at their sites, after the government promised to handle it.

Finland, Sweden, Switzerland, and Canada all have adopted a similar approach, and their nuclear waste management programs are moving forward.

Ewing’s proposal borrows from successful models in other countries by requiring public stakeholders to have an opportunity to reject nuclear waste storage earlier in the process, allowing communities to take a more proactive role.

“The social piece of this is critical,” Macfarlane said. “That has been the sticking point in other countries, too, but they have made efforts on the social side of it and have made progress where the U.S. hasn’t.”



Leave a Reply

Search All Posts