There is no reason to take in the world’s low-level nuclear waste when we have not figured out what to do with our own.”
Those were the words of Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tn.) during his announcement that he would soon introduce a bill with Senator Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) that would ban importation of foreign-generated, low-level nuclear waste. The decision to introduce legislation came after EnergySolutions, based in Utah, submitted an application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to import 20,000 tons of low-level waste from Italy.
First, what exactly is low-level waste? The NRC defines it as items that typically have been contaminated with radioactive material such as “shoe covers and clothing, wiping rags, mops, filters, reactor water treatment residues, equipments and tools, luminous dials, medical tubes, swabs, injection needles, syringes, and laboratory animal carcasses and tissues.” There are currently three sites open (one in Utah, one in Washington and one in South Carolina) that receive low-level waste under the proper oversight of the NRC.
The truth is that we do know what we’re doing with our low-level nuclear waste, and we’re doing it right now. It’s handled safely and has been transported all over the United States for years without a problem.
So what’s the problem? Eventual co-sponsor Senator Cardin remarked,
Reserving the capacity at the Utah site for waste generated in our own country, before we import waste from other countries, makes good common sense and good public policy.”
The Senators view this as a problem that the United States could become America’s nuclear waste dump, but they neglect the benefits it has to offer. Clearly, companies see potential profit from foreign-generated, low-level nuclear waste, which results in more jobs and a stimulated economic community. If it is profitable for companies to manage low-level waste, the market will react to meet the demand. Reserving the capacity makes little sense the U.S. has two other available storage sites with the capability to build many more. More restrictions are exactly what this country doesn’t need.
Maybe the Senator confused low-level waste with high-level waste, an easy mistake. The federal government has failed to fulfill its obligations to take title of high-level nuclear waste and has failed to open the geologic repository, Yucca Mountain, by 1998. As a result, utilities have paid billions of dollars in the Nuclear Waste Fund only to see the used nuclear fuel sit on their sites, causing the utilities to bring a lawsuit against the federal government in which ultimately the taxpayers foot the bill.
Now that sounds more reflective of Senator Alexander’s words “We don’t know what to do with our own.” The management of high-level used nuclear fuel in America needs a complete overhaul, a free-market overhaul at that. The Heritage Foundation’s Research Fellow in nuclear energy Jack Spencer outlines an effective way to privatize the management of used nuclear fuel that includes these critical steps:
• Create the legal framework that allows the private sector to price geologic storage as a commodity;
• Empower the private sector to manage used fuel;
• Repeal the 70,000-ton limitation on the Yucca Mountain repository and instead let technology, science, and physical capacity determine the appropriate limit;
• Create a private entity that is representative of but independent from nuclear operators to manage Yucca Mountain;
• Repeal the mil, abolish the Nuclear Waste Fund, and transfer the remaining funds to a private entity to cover the expenses of constructing Yucca Mountain; and
• Limit the federal government’s role to providing oversight, basic research, and development and taking title of spent fuel upon repository decommissioning.