Today, I published my first energy article for American Solutions. I am looking to write for them roughly once a week about various energy issues facing our nation. To check out my article about the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, click the link above or just read on below.
This past week, a disagreement occurred between the Energy Secretary Steven Chu and White House Budget Director Peter Orszag over how much money should be cut from funding the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository. This disagreement once again brings up the question of what are the United States’ plans for long-term storage of nuclear waste since support for expanding nuclear energy is growing within the public and with policymakers.
Nuclear energy has seen a resurgence in popularity in the past couple years, as evidenced by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission receiving roughly 20 applications to build over 30 reactors in just the past 4 years.
In June 2008, the Yucca Mountain facility submitted a much-anticipated application to build a deep geologic repository for used nuclear fuel and other high-level radioactive waste, and the goal of increasing our nuclear energy production levels looked to be achievable.
However, over the past year of the new administration, we have seen conflicting statements and actions concerning increasing nuclear energy production within the United States.
For example, not even a month after the inauguration, the Obama administration announced that it will cut off almost all funding to the Yucca Mountain Facility and instead wants to look into finding a “better solution for management of our nuclear waste.”
With the Yucca Mountain solution taking over 25 years to get to the point where they can even apply to start building the facility, how much longer will the American people have to wait for the Obama administration’s “better solution” to come to fruition?
Of course, their proposed solution has not yet been announced, one year after halting funding for Yucca Mountain. This haphazard discontinuation by the administration of a project that has received previous endorsements from all three branches of the U.S. government contradicts their pro-nuclear energy stance and statements.
Even though recycling the spent nuclear fuel for further use in nuclear reactors should be the ultimate goal, there are those that feel that a long-term nuclear waste repository must first be demonstrated before these reprocessing efforts will be expanded.
That is why this facility, which Congress passed legislation to create in 1982 and was meant to safely store nuclear material from across the country for thousands of years, is necessary if we are to expand the nuclear energy production capacity of the United States
After decades of work and roughly $10 billion spent on research, the country needs a place like Yucca Mountain that is authorized to store 70,000 metric tons of nuclear fuel, and has been rated by the Electric Power Research Institute to safely and securely store up to 570,000 metric tons of nuclear waste.
While this may seem like a lot of waste, critics must consider that 0.0007 pounds of nuclear material can produce the same amount of energy as 1,780 pounds of coal. In fact, over the past 50 years of nuclear energy production, only 60,000 metric tons of waste has been produced.
Currently, nuclear power plants are forced to store their nuclear waste on-site. While many argue that the fuel is safely stored at the reactor sites, it is surely less than ideal since these measures were to be a temporary fix rather than a long-term solution like the one Yucca Mountain can offer.
The on-site storage of nuclear waste is very expensive, both for the companies operating the plants and the American taxpayer. Since 1998, the government has been on the hook for paying for many of these on-site storage capabilities, the product of a partial breach of contract signed two decades ago whereby the government would construct a permanent federal facility for the safe disposal of nuclear waste.
The DOE has estimated that the cost to the government of on-site storage litigation will be roughly $11 billion by 2020, the year when the Yucca Mountain repository would be complete if positive actions were taken today.
Overall, this recent disagreement between the White House and Secretary Chu highlights the fact that the administration has not upheld its end of the deal. With the cut in funds to the Yucca Mountain repository, the administration promised to quickly set up a panel to find alternatives solutions to our nuclear waste problem, but in the year since the initial cuts, no steps have been taken to do so.
As the months go by and funding is slowly but surely eliminated from this project without any sign of an alternative solution, one has to wonder if the White House truly is serious about expanding our nuclear energy capacity. Regretfully, the administration’s recent actions seem to point to the contrary.