Today the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology released a comprehensive report that details the Obama Administration’s attempt to prematurely and unnecessarily shut down the used nuclear fuel repository at Yucca Mountain. The report demonstrates that issues surrounding opening Yucca Mountain are purely political and not one bit scientific and technical.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the report is the information revealed from Volume III of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Safety Evaluation Report (SER), which was obtained as a result of a Freedom of Information Act request from The Heritage Foundation. The committee’s press release highlights that:
SER Volume III demonstrates in excruciating detail the level of technical support among NRC and Department of Energy (DOE) experts in favor of the site’s advancement. Overall, the NRC staff review concluded that DOE’s Yucca Mountain License Application complies with applicable NRC safety requirements necessary for the site to proceed to licensing for construction.
Another extremely discomforting story in the Yucca debate is that in an Environment and Economy Subcommittee hearing on the Department of Energy’s Role in managing nuclear waste, “witnesses revealed that Energy Secretary Steven Chu simply ignored the technical components of the Yucca Mountain nuclear repository when withdrawing the project’s license application.”
During the 2007 primaries, then-candidate Barack Obama said this about the nuclear waste repository Yucca Mountain: “Well, as I’ve said, I don’t think it’s fair to send it to Nevada.… because we’re producing it. So what we have to do is we’ve got to develop the storage capacity based on sound science.” He followed through when he became President by zeroing out funding for Yucca Mountain—funding that comes from American nuclear ratepayers.
In March 2009, President Obama released a White House memo stressing that “the public must be able to trust the science and scientific process informing public policy decisions. Political officials should not suppress or alter scientific or technological findings and conclusions.”
These two statements are wildly inconsistent. The science clearly demonstrates that Yucca Mountain is adequate for that purpose.
Regardless of whether we build new nuclear reactors or reprocess spent nuclear fuel, in every scenario, the Yucca Mountain repository is critical to the long-term success of nuclear power in the United States. The reality is that some of the byproducts of nuclear fission will last a long time. Therefore, the U.S. needs a place where it can be safely stored and remain under the control of an enduring institution like the U.S. government after the facility is closed.
Although Yucca Mountain alone is not the solution to America’s nuclear waste management problems, it is a critical part of the solution. It would allow the U.S. to transition to a system where there is a market for waste management services. Heritage Research Fellow Jack Spencer recently testified on this very issue:
The primary goal of any strategy for used-fuel management should be to provide a disposition pathway for all of America’s nuclear waste. The basic problem with the current system is that every nuclear power plant needs a place to put its waste, and Yucca Mountain is potentially not big enough to hold it all under the current used-fuel management regime.
In other words, permanent geologic storage capacity is a scarce resource on which the industry depends. If used-fuel management were a market-based system, this storage capacity would carry a very high value. A new system should price geologic storage as a scarce resource and fold any costs into a fee for emplacing nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain.
This would allow nuclear waste producers to take into account the cost of geologic storage and incentivize different waste management mechanisms, whether building a reprocessing plant or building a new reactor technology with a less costly waste stream. Even with a new system in place, a geologic repository is essential. Given the certitude that Yucca Mountain is a sound repository scientifically and technologically, there is no reason for the Obama Administration to close Yucca. The committee’s report strongly reaffirms this.