May 10, 2012 | Commentary on Energy and Environment

Uncle Sam, Derelict Nuclear-Waste Disposer

Solyndra was back in the news recently. The big story: It had left some buckets and barrels of toxic waste at one of its shuttered facilities.

Big whoop. The federal government has abandoned 65,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel at plants across the country — even though it's legally required to remove it all.

The Obama administration has often been criticized for its lawless behavior, but its [non]handling of spent nuclear fuel is an especially egregious example of its complete disregard for the law of the land.

The waste currently sitting at nuclear sites across the country was generated with the understanding, codified in law, that the government would be responsible for removing it. But, remove it to where?

Enter the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear-waste repository. The debate over Yucca Mountain has gone on for decades. But this week, a federal appeals court heard arguments that could result in a court order forcing the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to complete its long-overdue review of the Yucca proposal.

To fully understand the extent to which the Obama administration, specifically the Department of Energy (DOE), has acted in direct contradiction of federal statutes, a quick refresher on the Yucca project may be helpful.

In 1982, Congress enacted the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. It mandated DOE to build a national repository and move spent nuclear fuel from reactor sites to the repository. Five years later, Congress enacted a law specifying that the repository would be located in Yucca Mountain, an NRC safety review and license.

In 2008 — 21 years and some $15 billion later — the DOE finally submitted its licensing application to the NRC.

The law requires the NRC to make a decision on DOE's application within three years of submission.

With that deadline fast approaching in 2010, Mr. Obama's DOE defied the law's clearly defined statutes and tried to withdraw its licensing application for Yucca Mountain. The president quickly proceeded to striking any future funds for Yucca.

Mr. Obama's decision to unilaterally terminate the Yucca project is troubling enough. But his attempted justification was even more objectionable. The administration admitted it had no scientific or technical grounds for terminating the project. Mr. Obama was pulling the plug, he said, simply because it lacked "social and political acceptance."

This is a textbook example of letting political motivations trump the rule of law. Essentially, the president decided that, if he disagrees with a law, he needn't uphold it. And why work with Congress to change a law, when it's so much easier just to act as though it doesn't exist?

By blocking the Yucca project, the administration has imperiled the future of nuclear energy. The growing waste stockpiles must be safely disposed of somewhere, yet the president has offered no Plan B. Sure, he appointed a blue-ribbon commission to look into the matter, but its recommendations are simply gathering dust.

Besides, even the commission acknowledged that the nation needs a geologic repository. The only reason it didn't address Yucca is because Energy Secretary Steven Chu explicitly told the commissioners not to.

Yucca matters because the government's inability to fulfill its legal waste-disposal obligations creates a huge impediment to building additional nuclear-power plants. The federal government's refusal to take possession of the used fuel leaves itself (that is, the taxpayers) liable to the plant operators for an increasingly enormous amount. And it leaves plant owners in the tenuous position of having to store ever-increasing amounts of waste on site indefinitely. That creates a great deal of uncertainty for investors in nuclear energy.

It's all quite sad. No scientific or technical data existed to merit ending the project. But, desiring to please the anti-nuclear crowd, the administration chose the backdoor route to kill Yucca. Without a solution to allow for the proper disposal of nuclear waste, the administration is slowly killing cheap, reliable and "green" nuclear energy.

Jack Spencer is senior research fellow in Nuclear-Energy Policy at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Jack Spencer Vice President, the Institute for Economic Freedom and Opportunity

First Appeared in The Washington Times.