January 18, 2002

January 18, 2002 | Commentary on Energy and Environment

Don't Waste Yucca Mountain

What's right is rarely what's easy -- as President Bush is finding out as he begins to change the way America stores nuclear waste.

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 soon.

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 requirements.

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 waste.

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 plan.

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 science.

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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