Nuclear Waste in the Age of Climate Change

Concerns about global warming are giving a boost to nuclear power. And that’s bringing new focus “” and a possible solution — to the problem of radioactive waste.

The sky lightens just before dawn behind the cooling towers of the Perry Nuclear Power Plant in Perry, Ohio, Friday, August 15, 2003, which shut down during the outage. (
National Journal
Coral Davenport
Feb. 21, 2013, 3:10 p.m.

In the icy dead­lock of the par­tis­an Con­gress, there’s a new thaw around an old prob­lem: what to do with the na­tion’s nuc­le­ar waste.

It’s a wor­ri­some ques­tion. For more than 50 years, the na­tion’s nuc­le­ar-power plants, which pro­duce about 20 per­cent of U.S. elec­tri­city, have been gen­er­at­ing ra­dio­act­ive spent fuel””the tox­ic stuff left over after the power is pro­duced. At 121 cur­rent and re­tired power plants in 39 states, nuc­le­ar waste con­tin­ues to ac­cu­mu­late, a state of af­fairs that came un­der re­newed scru­tiny in 2011 when an earth­quake struck Ja­pan’s Fukushi­ma Daii­chi nuc­le­ar-power plant, ig­nit­ing a ra­dio­act­ive in­ferno.

Sci­ent­ists de­term­ined long ago that the best place to store nuc­le­ar waste was not on- site at power plants but un­der­ground in an earth­quake-proof re­pos­it­ory where it can be kept for mil­lions of years. Con­gress de­creed in a 1987 law where that re­pos­it­ory should be: Yucca Moun­tain, about 100 miles north­w­est of Las Ve­gas. But Nevada law­makers””who de­rided the law as the “Screw Nevada Act”””vowed to keep nuc­le­ar waste out of their home state. So, the pro­ject has stayed dormant, and Pres­id­ent Obama has said that Yucca is “not an op­tion” for a dump.

But new real­it­ies””in­clud­ing the specter of Fukushi­ma, the fra­gile eco­nomy, a soar­ing de­fi­cit, and a re­newed push for ac­tion on cli­mate change””have re­vived in­terest in find­ing a solu­tion to the na­tion’s nuc­le­ar-waste prob­lem. The ef­fort is also get­ting a push from the emer­gence of a key sen­at­or, whose ef­forts il­lus­trate dra­mat­ic­ally how loc­al polit­ics can in­flu­ence na­tion­al policy.

Be­cause Yucca Moun­tain is not on the table as long as Harry Re­id, the Sen­ate ma­jor­ity lead­er from Nevada, re­tains his post, ex­perts have come up with an­oth­er solu­tion: cre­ation of an in­ter­im stor­age site, a gov­ern­ment-run “halfway house,” where the waste could be moved from power plants and sit for up to a cen­tury await­ing con­struc­tion of a fi­nal rest­ing place. The most likely loc­a­tion for such a spot is near Carls­bad, N.M., where the En­ergy De­part­ment already stores nuc­le­ar-weapons waste. But from 2001 to 2012, the Sen­ate En­ergy Com­mit­tee was chaired con­sec­ut­ively by two New Mex­ic­ans””Re­pub­lic­an Pete Domen­ici and Demo­crat Jeff Binga­man””who didn’t rel­ish that pro­spect. Now, both have re­tired from the Sen­ate. And the com­mit­tee’s new chair­man, Ore­gon Demo­crat Ron Wyden, has a very dif­fer­ent take. For 16 years, his state was home to the Tro­jan nuc­le­ar-power sta­tion, a fa­cil­ity that was dogged by protests from the day it was built. Tro­jan is now re­tired, but the site re­mains home to 34 casks of bur­ied nuc­le­ar waste, which Wyden and his con­stitu­ents would love to see hauled out of Ore­gon.

“This is go­ing to be a pri­or­ity for me,” Wyden told Na­tion­al Journ­al. “It’s an is­sue where I think we can break through par­tis­an grid­lock.”

Wyden is work­ing with the Sen­ate En­ergy Com­mit­tee’s rank­ing Re­pub­lic­an, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, on a bill to cre­ate a “me­di­um-term” nuc­le­ar-waste stor­age site. Join­ing them is an­oth­er power­ful bi­par­tis­an pair””Cali­for­nia Demo­crat Di­anne Fein­stein and Ten­ness­ee Re­pub­lic­an Lamar Al­ex­an­der, who co­chair the spend­ing com­mit­tee that would over­see the pro­ject. As long as it doesn’t name Yucca Moun­tain, their bill ap­pears to have strong pro­spects on the Sen­ate floor.

In the House, there’s also a bi­par­tis­an push””par­tic­u­larly by those in the 39 states home to cur­rent or re­tired nuc­le­ar plants””to find a nuc­le­ar-waste solu­tion. For now, House lead­ers say that a bill to cre­ate a nuc­le­ar halfway house must still name Yucca Moun­tain as the waste’s fi­nal des­tin­a­tion, doom­ing the meas­ure’s Sen­ate pro­spects. “We can­not have a ser­i­ous con­ver­sa­tion about solv­ing Amer­ica’s nuc­le­ar-waste prob­lems without talk­ing about Yucca Moun­tain,” said House En­ergy Com­mit­tee Chair­man Fred Up­ton, R-Mich.

Even if House Re­pub­lic­ans do agree to strip Yucca Moun­tain from a bill, oth­er chal­lenges await: Any state host­ing the fa­cil­ity will fear that it could be­come a de facto per­man­ent dump. There will be fights about nuc­le­ar waste trav­el­ing across the coun­try by train, truck, and barge.

Sev­er­al forces are com­ing to a head to force a res­ol­u­tion. By law, the U.S. gov­ern­ment was to have taken title of all the na­tion’s nuc­le­ar waste in 1998, pre­sum­ably at Yucca Moun­tain. For each year that power com­pan­ies hold that waste on site, they sue the gov­ern­ment; to date, Wash­ing­ton has paid $1.2 bil­lion in li­ab­il­it­ies. Without a gov­ern­ment-run site for nuc­le­ar waste, some util­it­ies es­tim­ate that the tax­pay­er costs could rise as high as $100 bil­lion in the com­ing dec­ades.

In ad­di­tion, Peter Ly­ons, the En­ergy De­part­ment’s as­sist­ant sec­ret­ary for nuc­le­ar en­ergy, sees a ma­jor shift in how states view nuc­le­ar waste. In today’s eco­nom­ic en­vir­on­ment, sev­er­al have ap­proached DOE to ex­press in­terest in host­ing a nuc­le­ar-waste fa­cil­ity. “There’s a very dif­fer­ent dy­nam­ic. Nevada had no choice. It was crammed down their throats. But a lot has happened since then,” Ly­ons said. “Now, com­munit­ies see that this is go­ing to be a jobs en­gine.”

Mean­while, Obama’s call for ac­tion on cli­mate change could lead to new de­mand for nuc­le­ar power, which is the na­tion’s cheapest and most widely avail­able source of zero-car­bon-pol­lu­tion elec­tri­city. But the in­dustry ac­know­ledges that it’s al­most im­possible to build nuc­le­ar plants un­til law­makers find a solu­tion for the waste.

“I think there is a change, a new open­ness to this as a solu­tion,” said eco­nom­ist Cliff Hamal, chief au­thor of a fed­er­al re­port re­com­mend­ing the cre­ation of an in­ter­im site. “Cali­for­nia, Ore­gon, and oth­er places that keep spent nuc­le­ar fuel are tired of hav­ing it. Cent­ral­iz­ing this waste will lower the gov­ern­ment’s fin­an­cial li­ab­il­ity. The sav­ings are sub­stan­tial. And from a com­munity’s per­spect­ive, it will add well-pay­ing jobs.”

He ad­ded, “This is a real prob­lem, and the num­bers are adding up.”

COR­REC­TION: An earli­er ver­sion of this art­icle in­cor­rectly stated that the pools of nuc­le­ar spent fuel at the Fukushi­ma Daii­chi plant ig­nited after a 2011 earth­quake.