In a welcome decision, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission yesterday announced that it will not act on the Department of Energy’s motion to withdraw its application to construct the nuclear materials repository at Yucca Mountain until the court system rules on related lawsuits.
Not only will it not consider the motion but it will continue its work on the application review and expects to have a significant portion completed by November. In other words, Yucca is far from dead.
The announcement from the NRC was a pleasantly unexpected one. Just days ago Department of Energy Secretary said, “We are taking steps to end [Yucca Mountain] because… we see no point in it. It’s spending a lot of money. It’s very important that we not linger around this decision. It’s been made, and we want to go forward and move into the future.” The DOE called Yucca an unworkable option. Apparently the NRC wasn’t listening.
After the DOE proclaimed that it would withdraw the Yucca application, a dozen parties subsequently filed petitions to intervene, mostly on the grounds that it was unlawful for the DOE to do so. And this was the problem all along for the Administration’s policy. They disregarded the process, ignored existing statute, flouted the will of Congress, and overlooked the science. Most importantly, they allowed politics to get in the way of sound policy.
Just like the president’s announcement on offshore drilling, his rhetoric on nuclear sounds good but his policy decisions do little to advance the long-term prospects of nuclear energy. This is clearly the case with Yucca.
Even if Yucca is not the final destination for our nation’s nuclear waste, it shouldn’t prevent the NRC from completing the Yucca license application. A geologic repository will eventually be needed, and the application process will provide the NRC, DOE, and the nuclear industry valuable information to inform future decision-making.
If killing Yucca Mountain is what the Administration wants to do then it should go about it the right way. It should seek legislative reforms to allow for a Yucca alternative and develop an achievable Plan B to take the current plan’s place. Doing so would allow the 121 communities across the country that currently store both commercial and defense waste to be more comfortable with the process. .
A better approach altogether, however, would be to institute reforms that would allow the project to move forward in a more stable way. The heart of such an approach would be to empower the State of Nevada to determine the outcome of Yucca Mountain. Then Nevada could negotiate a workable solution directly with industry—leaving out the federal government and all of its politics. If no workable plan is developed, then Yucca dies on Nevada’s terms. If, however, an agreement is reached, then Nevada could enjoy the many economic benefits of hosting such a facility.
The Obama Administration’s awkward attempt to strong-arm the death of Yucca Mountain is but the latest chapter in government ineptitude when it comes to nuclear waste. It’s good to see the NRC seems to have recognized the folly of the process and responded by slowing things down. To be effective, regulators can not be bullied and judging by yesterday’s decision; the NRC will not be bullied. Good for them.