Reason has yet to prevail in nuclear waste debate

September 9, 2009 

We'd like to see the Obama administration come up with a better plan for the nation's nuclear wastes.

We really would.

If science and a rational energy policy ever ruled the day, the federal government wouldn't be burying spent reactor fuel at Yucca Mountain in Nevada or anywhere else.

At least not until the useful isotopes were recycled and the leftover wastes turned into glass logs.

Throwing away an abundant energy source -- one that releases no greenhouse gases -- was never a good idea.

With today's growing concerns over global warming and America's dependence on foreign oil, the idea seems downright wacky.

Unfortunately, there's no reason to think the administration's decision to abandon the Yucca Mountain repository and rethink the nation's plans for handling spent fuel will lead to a better solution.

That's not a knock on Energy Secretary Steven Chu or the expert panel on nuclear wastes that he's supposed to appoint.

It's simply a recognition that politics and emotions have always trumped science when it comes to this issue.

Given the history, we're afraid that another run at this political hot potato is likely to impede the much-needed resurgence of nuclear power.

In the Northwest, we worry about what will happen to Hanford's tank wastes if Yucca Mountain never opens, but the implications for the nation's energy supply are even more troubling.

Halting progress on a national repository for nuclear wastes plays into the hands of anti-nuclear activists to the detriment of the nation.

The inability to find a permanent solution for spent fuel has been the foundation of the anti-nuclear movement's opposition for decades.

The closed-loop argument -- no new reactors until a waste repository is operating, no repository site is ever safe enough -- has succeeded in keeping the U.S. dependent on fossil fuels.

The nation appears on the verge of adopting a nuclear policy that makes sense for the economy and the environment.

More and more people who care about the future of the planet recognize that nuclear power provides the only realistic means to reduce greenhouse gas emissions significantly.

The waste issue -- which has always been dominated by politics, NIMBY sentiments and irrational fears -- shouldn't be allowed to derail the momentum starting to build behind a nuclear renaissance.

If not Yucca Mountain, then where?

Progress on meeting the world's growing demand for energy while reducing greenhouse gases depends on a quick answer to that question.

Technically, temporary onsite storage -- in dry casks if cooling ponds are full -- could easily take care of the waste problem until all the bugs are worked out of fuel recycling and a place found for the glass logs left at the end of that process.

But realistically, the U.S. nuclear power industry is stalled until a permanent solution for the waste "problem" is found.

Recent polls show Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is in trouble with Nevada voters. If Reid lost his re-election bid, what would it mean for Yucca Mountain?

Maybe a change in the political landscape will turn nuclear waste policy back toward Nevada, but for now uncertainty prevails.

No one wants to invest in uncertainties.

There's a real danger that the Obama administration's decision to reopen the waste issue will leave the U.S. without any plan for spent fuel.

Chu's experts can certainly come up with a scientifically sound proposal, but technical merit has never been a match for political clout.

We'd like a better plan, but we know better than to count on it.

Tri-City Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service