Testifying before the House Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development last Wednesday, Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu acknowledged to the committee that he explicitly directed the Blue Ribbon Commission charged with recommending a nuclear waste storage policy to the Obama Administration to strike the Yucca Mountain repository from its purview. This is unfortunate, as considering Yucca would add significant credibility to the recommendation of the Blue Ribbon Commission, which held its first meeting last week. By asking the committee not even to consider Yucca Mountain, the Administration is solidifying the criticism that it is basing its decision on politics rather than scientific or technical data.
Secretary Chu’s written statement submitted to the subcommittee only says concerning the Yucca decision that “The Administration has determined that developing a repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada is not a workable option…” Indeed, for over a year the Administration has insisted that there are better options than Yucca Mountain for dealing with storage of the nation’s nuclear waste, and the Administration has all the while expressed confidence that an impartial review by the Blue Ribbon Commission would show that its position on Yucca is the right one. Given Secretary Chu’s admission before the House subcommittee, however, it is plain that the Administration is not, after all, confident in the soundness of its decision as adjudged apart from political considerations.
Make no mistake, the science so far very clearly shows that Yucca could safely house the nation’s nuclear waste. As the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month, “As recently as late last year, the DOE Web site said 20 years of research and billions of dollars-worth of scientific work found that the Yucca Mountain repository ‘brings together the location, natural barriers, and design elements most likely to protect the health and safety of the public.’”
And yet, the Obama Administration is not just attempting to take Yucca off the table for the foreseeable future. No—the Administration wants to really kill Yucca for good, and has accordingly chosen to go down a procedural path that, if decided in the Administration’s favor, will result in a permanent and irreversible termination of the Yucca project. On this topic, Rep. Mike Simpson (R-ID) questioned Secretary Chu about why the Administration would opt for the most extreme measure in its effort to end Yucca when less stringent options were available to the Administration. The most that Chu could do to explain the decision was to say that the Administration wanted to send a clear message about its intention not to go forward with Yucca. Anyone who has been following the fate of Yucca knows that the Administration’s intention to terminate Yucca has never been in doubt. Chu’s response does nothing to explain why the Administration has chosen such a drastic means of achieving its goal.
Such a decision, made without a rational basis, does not bode well for the future of nuclear energy. Indeed, as Heritage Research Fellow in Nuclear Energy Policy Jack Spencer has said, “The Administration’s Yucca policy signals once again that the government cannot be a trusted partner.” A geologic repository is critical to the realization of a nuclear energy renaissance in America, and there’s nothing scientific or technological that says Yucca cannot be that repository. The Obama Administration is jeopardizing America’s energy future by advancing political interests ahead of the national interest.
If President Obama and Secretary Chu were truly confident that there are better ways to manage nuclear waste than Yucca, then they would have no reason to fear what an open inquiry on the part of the Blue Ribbon Commission would find. Clearly, the president and the secretary do not have such confidence in the defensibility of their decision to end the Yucca Mountain repository project.
Instead of rejecting the repository outright and thus potentially undermining the credibility of the Commission’s conclusions, the commission should recommend how to specifically resolve the Yucca Mountain impasse. The commission should first make a technical and scientific conclusion about Yucca Mountain’s viability based on the data available. If it determines that Yucca is not technically viable, then it should simply defend that conclusion. However, if the commission concludes that it is viable and still determines that Yucca Mountain is not fit for nuclear waste disposal, then it should also state why that site should not be part of a comprehensive national nuclear waste disposition strategy and put forth a detailed recommendation on how to disengage from the program.
This disengagement strategy should include how to repay to electricity ratepayers the $8 billion in sunk costs that have already been invested in Yucca and a legal analysis of how its conclusions affect the U.S. government’s ability to fulfill its legal obligations to dispose of America’s nuclear waste. Finally, it should make recommendations on whether the Nuclear Regulatory Commission should continue with its review of the Department of Energy’s permit application to build the Yucca repository.
Jeff Witt is a member of the Young Leaders Program at the Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please visit: http://www.heritage.org/About/Internships-Young-Leaders/The-Heritage-Foundation-Internship-Program