Broader fight needed over Yucca Mountain decision

February 28, 2010 

Hats off to the trio of Tri-Citians challenging President Obama's decision to abandon plans for a nuclear waste repository in Nevada.

But it's a curious turn of events that has individuals leading the charge against this sudden shift in the nation's nuclear waste policy away from Yucca Mountain.

The uproar from electrical ratepayers, taxpayers, the nuclear industry and local and state officials ought to be deafening. If the decision stands, it means pouring more than $3 billion of the ratepayers' money down a rat hole without any rational explanation.

As a nation, we ought to be outraged. Instead, the response has been inexplicably underwhelming from most quarters.

On Feb. 1, Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced that he was withdrawing the Department of Energy's licensing application "with prejudice."

The phrasing is important. It means that left unchallenged, Chu's action wouldn't just halt the licensing process, but also prevent Yucca Mountain from ever being considered for a nuclear waste repository.

The decision is purely political. Northwesterners especially shouldn't stand for it.

So far, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's licensing review hasn't turned up any technical reasons to reject Yucca Mountain.

But the Obama administration's blue ribbon panel on nuclear waste won't even be allowed to consider the Nevada site.

That's terrible policy for a lot of reasons.

It flushes billions of dollars worth of research to determine whether high-level nuclear wastes can be safely stored in a deep geological repository at Yucca Mountain.

It tables indefinitely any decision on what to do with the nation's growing stockpile of high-level nuclear wastes.

And by allowing politics to trump science at Yucca Mountain, Chu's announcement threatens to stall permanently progress toward resolving the nation's nuclear waste problem.

If the Obama administration can unilaterally reject Yucca Mountain, what's to stop some future presidential candidate from tossing out the next plan for nuclear wastes in exchange for a few electoral votes?

That prospect ought to worry a lot more people than the Herald's editorial board.

After all, more than 60,000 tons of spent reactor fuel is housed in temporary storage at commercial reactors in 31 states.

Then there are 7,000 tons of high-level wastes left over from nuclear weapons production, much of it buried in 177 underground tanks at Hanford.

For now, wastes from nuclear power generation and national defense programs are housed at 131 sites across the nation.

There's no telling whether that number ever will be reduced under the course President Obama wants to take.

There have been a few potshots from elected officials at the administration's actions. Gov. Chris Gregoire called it "a terrible mistake" to take any option off the table. Sen. Patty Murray and U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings have been critical of the decision.

The Energy Communities Alliance, which represents local governments near DOE cleanup sites, has voiced its frustration over "the lack of communication that has come from DOE on this issue."

And there's some strong opposition from the other side of the country. County commissioners in Aiken County, S.C., voted to take legal action earlier this month. More than 4,000 metric tons of nuclear waste are stored there.

On Friday, South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster took legal action against the administration.

But in the Northwest so far, there doesn't seem to be any opposition more substantial than the lawsuit filed by Tri-City leaders Bob Ferguson, Bill Lampson and Gary Petersen.

The suit contends that Obama's decision to withdraw the license request for Yucca Mountain violates the Nuclear Waste Policy Act and seeks to prevent the administration from dismantling the project before a court ruling on the issue.

At least somebody is doing something, but it hardly seems adequate given the potential for the administration's action to leave high-level nuclear wastes stranded at Hanford.

It's not too late for others to pick up the mantle. Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna is weighing the state's legal options.

He ought to intervene and right away. This issue is too important to Washington's future for the state to sit out the fight.

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