The nation’s nuclear waste is trapped between a rock and a hard place.
The long-fought plans to build a federal nuclear-waste dump beneath Nevada’s Yucca Mountain have ground to a halt. More than 100 nuclear-power plants around the country keep piling up spent fuel rods on-site, a backlog of up to 50 years of radioactive waste. The simmering unease over that situation erupted when densely packed spent-fuel rods ignited a radioactive inferno at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant. American nuclear-safety advocates quickly pointed out that such rods are packed even more densely and dangerously at many U.S. plants, a situation that will only intensify with no place to permanently deposit the spent fuel.
Now, a White House-appointed commission, a bipartisan pair of senators, and the nuclear-power industry, along with some cash-strapped communities, have revived the idea of hauling the nation’s nuclear waste away from power plants in populated areas and stashing it in a “halfway house” — a government-owned interim-storage space where the deadly spent fuel could sit for up to a century, awaiting a final destination.
The idea has been around for decades, but it’s never gotten off the ground, chiefly because state officials feared that any temporary nuclear-storage facility would inevitably become a de facto permanent repository. The two types of sites are completely different. An interim facility would be a steel-and-concrete building that could keep the waste secure for many decades. Only a deep geologic underground formation, however, can safeguard the waste for the millions of years it will take before its radioactive poison dissipates. States have feared that if they agree to host a nuclear-waste-interim storage site, they will saddle their next generations with the nightmare of hosting all of the nation’s nuclear waste — without a final solution in sight.
But now, the dim prospects for Yucca Mountain, the increased concern about storing the waste at power plants, and the rising cost to the federal government of keeping it there, have some experts saying that a new federal interim site may be the only, if not the best, option.
The Yucca Mountain project has been plagued by delays and protests ever since a 1987 law (known in Yucca’s home state as the “Screw Nevada” Act) designated the site as the final resting place for the nation’s radioactive waste. Soon after taking office, President Obama declared that storing nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain was “not an option” and slashed federal funding for the program. Republicans have slammed the move as political kowtowing to Nevada lawmakers, particularly Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid — but for now, they have no way to resurrect the project.
The administration last year convened a blue-ribbon commission of experts to find another solution. In May, a study sponsored by the panel concluded that interim storage “is an old idea worthy of fresh consideration.”
That recommendation got a boost on July 1, when Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, ranking member on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and Mary Landrieu, D-La., introduced a bill that would pay no more than two local entities — towns, cities, or counties — up to $25 million a year to store the waste, with another $25 million paid annually into the coffers of the host state.
Their proposal could appeal to many states that once would have rejected such an idea but are now suffering painful budget shortfalls. It also holds appeal for the spending hawks who are driving the federal budget debate. That’s because, by law, the federal government should have taken legal title to all of the nation’s nuclear waste in 1998 — presumably at Yucca Mountain. For each year that private companies hold the waste on-site, they sue the federal government. To date, Washington has paid $1.2 billion to settle the lawsuits, but given the freeze at the Yucca Mountain site, some utilities estimate that the government’s ultimate cost could rise as high as $50 billion to $100 billion in the coming decades.
The interim-storage idea is already moving off the drawing board. Near Carlsbad, N.M., the economic-development councils of Lea and Eddy counties are talking to several companies about the prospect of building the nation’s first nuclear-waste stopover site in the desert. Carlsbad already has experience hosting nuclear waste: Eddy County is home to the Energy Department’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, an underground salt formation where the government has been burying waste from nuclear weapons since 1999.
John Heaton, the energy coordinator for the city of Carlsbad, says that the site has brought southeastern New Mexico jobs and economic opportunities — and that people are ready for more.
“We have begun to develop what we think of as a nuclear corridor. We think there are economic-development prospects that “¦ create a future. From an interim-storage facility, we could get into [nuclear-waste] recycling, and there are a number of prospective industries that could grow from that,” Heaton told National Journal.
New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez has expressed cautious support — although all sides concede that any move to bring nuclear waste to the state will encounter political pushback. Also likely to fight a deal: all of the states through which the waste would have to travel by train to reach this or any other interim site.
“There are huge political problems with siting an interim facility,” concedes economist Cliff Hamal, chief author of the study sponsored by the federal panel. “But the Fukushima accident, the blue-ribbon commission, the tremendous amount of focus on spent fuel, the prospects for jobs, and other incentives — these factors add up strongly in favor of interim storage. Those are moving this forward.”