Even as Congress considers legislation to fix the government's nuclear- waste program, it must be acknowledged that the program still has a very long way to go. It imposes an enormous burden on electricity customers and thus undermines public faith in our country's ability to dispose of spent fuel in a deep underground repository.
Repeated efforts to keep the program on course have failed. In 1982, when the Nuclear Waste Policy Act was adopted, the law called for electricity customers to pay a fee of 1/10th of a cent for each kilowatt-hour of nuclear-generated electricity. But today the government has little to show for the more than $12 billion it has collected, in large part because more than half of the money has been used to help reduce the federal budget deficit.
We have reached the point where insufficient funding has delayed the scientific study of Yucca Mountain in Nevada so drastically that the government is unable to determine its suitability as a repository site until 1998 at the earliest. None of the goals established when the government launched the Yucca Mountain study more than a decade ago have been met.
Meanwhile, the clock is ticking. Every day the amount of spent fuel at nuclear power plants grows. Within 15 years, at least 80 nuclear power plants - two-thirds of the nation's nuclear-generating capacity - will be out of existing space to store spent fuel rods.
Without a place to store the waste and no guarantee that states will allow additional on-site storage, utilities might have no choice but to close their nuclear plants prematurely and allow facilities worth billions of dollars to become permanent waste-disposal sites. That isn't what nuclear plants like Pilgrim, Seabrook, and Vermont Yankee were designed to be.
Fortunately, interest in an interim solution is growing, and Congress has gotten the message. Republicans and Democrats alike are calling for passage of legislation that would direct the Department of Energy to remove the spent fuel rods from power plants beginning in 1998 and store them in an above-ground facility in the Nevada desert until a permanent repository opens.
In my view, there are important safety advantages in a storage facility that allows for more-efficient inspection and maintenance of the spent fuel. And since there are no technical unknowns to argue about, building a facility in the desert should be simple and relatively inexpensive. To ensure that adequate funds are available for spent-fuel storage and disposal, Congress should place the money paid by electricity customers into an off-budget account.
This approach permits a more flexible policy in developing technical requirements for the permanent repository. Building the repository has been compared to creating a mine in which the ore is put into the ground rather than removed. Surprises are common. No scientist can anticipate all of the potential glitches that might arise as geological structures beneath Yucca Mountain are examined. Scientists need to consider every possibility before they can be reasonably sure that waste materials stored there will remain isolated for thousands of years.
Storage also allows for the future recovery of spent fuel, which is a valuable resource. The spent fuel contains plutonium and unused uranium, both of which can be used as fuel to produce electricity, as is currently done in France, Japan, and a number of other countries. In years to come, as prime uranium resources become depleted, spent fuel in the United States should be worth tens of billions of dollars.
Neither Congress nor the American people should fall prey to the claims of antinuclear activists and Nevada officials who maintain that transporting spent fuel by highway and rail would imperil millions of people along the routes. Those who would frighten citizens into opposing the shipment of spent fuel to a central storage facility are not being honest.
OVER the past 30 years, the nuclear industry has transported high-level radioactive materials with absolute safety. Since the late 1950s, more than 2,300 shipments of spent fuel and more than 5,000 shipments of other highly radioactive materials have been made in the US, and many more, under the same regulations, have been made in other countries.
Opponents seeking to obstruct establishment of a waste repository ignore the reality that maintaining spent fuel indefinitely at scores of nuclear power plants around the US is impractical and extremely costly. Electricity customers pay twice in the present unsettled situation - once to the government for the establishment of a waste repository, and again for temporary, on-site storage of spent fuel at nuclear plants. Besides, on-site storage simply sidesteps the problem - it does not solve it. Even if every reactor were shut down tomorrow, the nuclear waste would remain.
The road to solving the nuclear waste problem begins in Washington. If the era of environmental responsibility has indeed arrived in national politics, let construction of a central storage facility for spent fuel be its first victory.