Yucca Mountain low

A court is rightly pushing the Obama administration to make a decision on the Nevada site, a first step in setting a long-term policy on nuclear waste.

Isaac Brekken/AP/File
A train prepares to enter an underground tunnel in Yucca Mountain in Nevada in April 2006. A federal court has asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to proceed with its long-delayed review of the application to store the nation's nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain.

A federal court this week spotlighted perhaps the ultimate NIMBY project in the United States.

When asked about permanently storing the country's more than 70,000 metric tons of nuclear waste from commercial power plants, states have answered "not in my backyard."

Over decades the federal government has spent more than $15 billion trying to find a suitable site and defending itself against related lawsuits that demand it do so. The US thought it might have a promising solution at Yucca Mountain, a remote site about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas. But after years of talk a formal recommendation on whether to proceed on the Yucca Mountain project has not been produced.

Sen. Harry Reid (D), the Senate majority leader, represents Nevada and has used his clout to make sure the Yucca Mountain site in his state will never be used.

This week a federal appeals court said the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission was "flouting the law" by not making a decision on whether to license the storage facility. But even if the court prods the NRC to make a decision, it can't go too far: The Yucca Mountain project has only $11 million in unspent funds, and Congress is unlikely to agree on appropriating any more.

Why should Americans care?

Spent nuclear fuel currently must be stored at the power plants themselves. In the short term, this process is relatively safe. But it will cause a big problem if it still remains when these plants must be decommissioned later this century. Nuclear plants are licensed for 40 years of operation, though it's possible they could be safely operated for several decades longer than that.

Meanwhile, the nuclear plant owners, and their customers, have been paying billions of dollars into a trust fund set aside for the disposal of nuclear waste. Yet the federal government, which has assumed responsibility for the safe disposal of the waste, has yet to provide a facility.

An up-or-down decision on Yucca Mountain could help the process move forward. But even if the facility were approved, the amount of nuclear waste on hand now exceeds its capacity. Additional locations would have to be found.

It's possible that Yucca Mountain could become part of a regional disposal system, one of several locations around the country. This solution would also shorten the number of miles that hazardous waste would have to be transported to the sites, another delicate NIMBY issue.

The Obama administration appointed a blue-ribbon panel to study other alternatives. In 2012 the panel concluded that the US government had an "ethical obligation" to safely store the waste, which will remain highly toxic for hundreds of years. But the panel failed to offer a long-term solution, saying instead that a temporary storage facility might be established until a better solution could be found.

Currently, nuclear waste is stored at 80 different sites in 35 states. And the amount is growing: It will more than double by 2055, predicts the US Government Accountability Office.

Despite the cautionary tale of the 2011 disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan, nuclear power will remain a substantial contributor to electrical power grids in the United States for many years to come. While no new nuclear plants are under construction in the US, the waste from existing plants could become a huge problem in coming decades if a proper storage plan cannot be worked out.

Nuclear power companies are urging the US government to do its part and move toward a solution, as the government promised.

The federal court's ruling is a reminder that the clock is ticking. The Obama administration has decided to kick the can down the road on the problem. But when the can is filled with nuclear waste, that can be a dangerous thing to do.

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