Making Nuclear Waste Disposal a Question of "How," Not "Where"

COMMENTARY Nuclear Energy

Making Nuclear Waste Disposal a Question of "How," Not "Where"

May 15th, 2019 2 min read
COMMENTARY BY
Katie Tubb

Senior Policy Analyst

Katie Tubb is a senior policy analyst for energy and environmental issues in the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies.
Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., Rep. Ruben Kihuen, D-Nev., Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., and Rep. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., make statements in opposition to using Yucca Mountain, on 4/26/19. Bill Clark/Getty Images

Key Takeaways

The government’s continuing inability to arrange for the safe, permanent disposal of that waste is costing taxpayers billions of dollars.

“The Senate can’t find and pick a site,” Mr. Fettus said. “That’s how we got into this mess in the first place."

By making nuclear power companies responsible for managing their own waste, Congress could let government regulators be simply that.

America benefits greatly from nuclear power. This energy source provides 20% of the nation’s electricity and is abundant, reliable and safe.

But like every other energy source, nuclear power produces waste, and this in the form of spent fuel rods.

The government’s continuing inability to arrange for the safe, permanent disposal of that waste is costing taxpayers billions of dollars.

So far, taxpayers have shelled out $7.4 billion in settlement fees because of the Energy Department’s failure to meet its disposal responsibilities.

But those fees are just the tip of the iceberg. Taxpayers can expect to pay anywhere from $28 billion to $50 billion.

So what has Congress done to fix the problem? Precious little.

For decades, the conversation has focused on where to establish a long-term repository for nuclear waste.

Congress thought it had resolved that question in 1987 when it decided Yucca Mountain in the Nevada desert was the best site.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has found plans for a repository at Yucca Mountain technologically feasible and safe.

But Yucca Mountain has turned into a political football and a litmus test for many politicians. Parties have dug their trenches deep: “Yucca or bust” on one side, and “over my dead body” on the other.

The result: gridlock.

Is there a way forward? Lawmakers appear to be willing to try.

On May 1, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee held a hearing on the issue for the first time in years. Committee members gathered to discuss one of two competing bills to figure out where to put nuclear waste. One bill would do too much to recommence Yucca Mountain under the broken policy; the other would do too little and punt on a repository for decades.

Like Goldilocks, is there an option that is “just right?” Congress must start by asking the right questions, and “where?” isn’t it.

The hearing began to get to the right question with a remark by the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Geoffrey Fettus.

“The Senate can’t find and pick a site,” Mr. Fettus said. “That’s how we got into this mess in the first place. What we need to do is set up a structure where people can say, ‘Yes … we can do this.’ But we can’t do it without a process where people can set those terms.”

Perhaps the biggest hurdle to locating a repository is not where to put it, but rather this deeper problem of structure.

Current law requires industry to cover the costs of nuclear waste management, as it should, but holds the federal government responsible for siting, constructing, transporting and operating nuclear waste disposal.

Historically, neither Nevada nor any other state has wanted to sign up “to dance with a 900-pound gorilla” — the federal government in which they have little trust and with which they don’t have power to negotiate — to quote former Wyoming Gov. Mike Sullivan.

But what if states were dealing with a nuclear industry that paid for and managed its waste? Private companies can’t use force to get their way with states and localities.

To get what they want, they must build trust with the communities — typically through long-term outreach and education — and negotiate mutually agreeable terms.

By making nuclear power companies responsible for managing their own waste, Congress could let government regulators be simply that — regulators playing the role of referee for public health and safety.

This approach already is working. In Finland, industry outreach and education overcame a staunch initial rejection by the community it approached to house a repository. The key was that the community had equal negotiating power.

This approach rejects the model of central planning by government, which has failed America for over 35 years. It neither confirms nor condemns Yucca Mountain as a disposal site.

Who knows? Maybe the nuclear industry can come up with terms whereby Nevadans would view the repository as a major community asset.

This piece originally appeared in The Washington Times