January 18, 2002 | Commentary on Energy and Environment
It would be easy to leave things as they are. The waste is
spread among 131 sites in 39 states, which stops officials of any
one state from complaining that they're treated unfairly. Those
stuck with nearby storage facilities are generally those who
benefit most from nuclear power. And with no new power plants even
in the planning stages, the demand for storage space probably won't
increase for a few years.
But leaving things as they are isn't right. What's right is what
President Bush is doing: pushing to open the Yucca Mountain
Geological Repository in Nevada as soon as possible. It's safe,
solid, stable, remote and easy to secure.
Still, making the case publicly won't be easy.
The Bush administration got a taste of how tough it will be when
Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham told Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn that
he plans to recommend that Yucca Mountain be approved as a
nuclear-waste repository. Politicians from both sides of the aisle
in Nevada and in Washington, D.C. rose in protest. Liberal
activists and the anti-nuclear crowd joined in.
No one wants to be the lawmaker who says, "Yes, our state would
be a great place for nuclear waste." And no liberal activist wants
to admit that anywhere in America is suitable for nuclear waste.
But the spent rods of nuclear power plants and discarded nuclear
power elements from the military have to be stored somewhere -- and
America has spent more than $6 billion -- $400 million in fiscal
2001 alone -- to determine the best site. About half the money came
from the Nuclear Waste Fund, which gets its money in part from the
nuclear-power industry and in part from a surcharge levied on those
who use nuclear power.
The research has gone on for almost a half-century. In 1957,
researchers from the National Academy of Sciences concluded that
the safest way to store nuclear waste was to bury it deep in rock
to prevent weather disasters or terrorist attacks.
Then they looked for a place that could safely hold 77,000
metric tons of hazardous radioactive materials (about 38 years'
worth of waste) for at least 10,000 years. They studied three --
Hanford, Wash., Deaf Smith County, Texas and Yucca Mountain -- and
found that Yucca Mountain, alone among the three, satisfies the
Researchers at universities nationwide and scientists and
engineers from around the world reviewed the data and agreed. Yucca
Mountain, with its natural and engineered barriers, can provide
America the safe, clean storage facility it needs for nuclear
Critics say the waste will be vulnerable to terrorist attack or
potentially catastrophic accidents as it travels to Yucca Mountain.
The mayor of Las Vegas has pledged to get mayors of other cities
along potential routes to join him in opposing the administration's
But surely moving the waste to one site, where it can be stored
on protected federal land 80 miles northwest of Las Vegas, is
better than trying to secure all the sites now in use. Particularly
when, thanks to the nearby Nevada Test Site -- which is
contaminated by earlier weapons testing -- military forces capable
of responding, rapidly and professionally, to any radiation
problems already are stationed nearby.
Besides, burying the waste 1,000 feet below ground in steel
casks, rather than in the cooling ponds we now use, would limit
exposure to terrorist attack.
Some opponents try to turn the "one-site-versus-many" argument
on its head. If we can't secure waste at dozens of locations around
the country, they say, then we shouldn't maintain our present
nuclear power facilities, let alone propose new plants.
Yet we can't do without nuclear energy. One in five homes,
businesses and factories depend on it and more undoubtedly will in
coming years as we seek to become less dependent on fossil fuel. We
can't keep using the present haphazard quilt of storage facilities,
and the security threat will only increase as time goes on.
President Bush can expect an onslaught of opposition from
liberal activists, Nevada natives and the anti-nuclear-power crowd.
But he has something on his side that they don't: sound
That's why, unless opponents know of some place that the entire
scientific community somehow has overlooked, they should get out of
the way and let President Bush's plan go forward.
The time is now. And Yucca Mountain is the place.
Charli Coon is an energy policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research institute.
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