Nuclear waste storage in limbo as Obama axes Yucca Mountain funds

Funding for the nuclear waste repository at Nevada's Yucca Mountain was eliminated in the president's budget proposal. Planning begins anew for long-term storage even as Obama urges a nuclear-power expansion.

By , Staff writer

Plans to bury America’s nuclear waste inside Nevada’s Yucca Mountain, a project that has long been the subject environmental and political opposition, appear all but dead.

Funding for the nuclear repository was eliminated in President Obama’s budget proposal released Monday. What’s more, according to the Las Vegas Sun, the Department of Energy has moved to suspend licensing for the desert storage site.

"This is great news because it not only prevents Nevada from becoming the nation's nuclear dumping ground, it also protects hundreds of communities through which the waste would have had to travel in order to get to Yucca," said Senate majority leader Harry Reid, who represents Nevada, in a statement released Sunday on his website.

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Senator Reid has been leading the charge in Congress against the Yucca Mountain repository project, which Congress designated in 1987 as the country’s likely spot for holding spent nuclear reactor fuel.

More nuclear plants – and more waste – ahead?

But even as a permanent solution to nuclear waste storage appears more elusive than ever, Mr. Obama’s budget promises more money with which to encourage the development of new nuclear power plants.

"This budget supports new approaches to energy research and invests in the next generation of scientists and engineers, and it will spark new clean energy projects nationwide, including restarting the American nuclear power industry," Energy Secretary Steven Chu said Monday in a statement.

The budget adds $36 billion to Department of Energy loan guarantees for new nuclear power plants, bringing the total amount of those guarantees to $54.5 billion. Obama heralded nuclear power in his recent State of the Union address, too, in which he called for a “new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country.”

Environmentalists bristled over the call for more nuclear reactors. Greenpeace said this: “There is no such thing as a ‘safe’ dose of radiation and just because nuclear pollution is invisible doesn't mean it's ‘clean.’ ”

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) called plans to increase loan guarantees for nuclear projects “a mistake.”

“Energy sources should compete for public dollars based on how well they provide the clean, efficient, and affordable power we need. On that basis, nuclear power has a long way to go,” said Christopher Paine, director of the nuclear program at NRDC, in a statement.

Public support rises for nuclear power

Nuclear power not only enjoys greater support in political circles, but it also is finding greater acceptance among the public. Fifty-nine percent of Americans favor “using nuclear energy as one of the ways to provide electricity for the US,” according to the March 2009 Gallup Environment Poll. That's up from a 46 percent favorable rating in 2001.

If the waste from any new plants and the 104 existing nuclear reactors isn’t bound for Yucca Mountain, however, where will the United State safely store spent nuclear for thousands of years?

That’s a question that will now be put to Lee Hamilton, the former congressman from Indiana, and former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft. The two will lead a commission to recommend alternatives to Yucca Mountain, which wasn't expected to be ready to receive waste shipments until 2020.

So far, most nuclear waste has been stored at or near the power plants where it is generated. For the foreseeable future, it seems as if that's where it will stay.

"Money talks and the president's budget shouts 'no more spending' on efforts to dump nuclear waste in Nevada," Rep. Shelley Berkley (D) of Nevada told the Las Vegas Sun. "We are closer than ever to winning the war on Yucca Mountain and the battle now is to pass this funding cut, so I'll be on the front lines leading the charge in the House."

The Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), an industry group, opposes nixing funding for the Yucca Mountain project.

“The industry does not support the termination of this program but believes that, if it is going to happen, it should occur in an orderly manner to permit the licensing process to be restarted if ever warranted,” said Marvin Fertel, NEI's president and CEO. But, he said, the NEI will work with Mr. Hamilton and Mr. Scowcroft to find a viable alternative for nuclear waste storage.

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