Guest Opinions

The high cost of nuclear waste politics

In this April 9, 2015, file photo, people walk into the south portal of Yucca Mountain during a congressional tour of the proposed radioactive waste dump near Mercury, Nev.
In this April 9, 2015, file photo, people walk into the south portal of Yucca Mountain during a congressional tour of the proposed radioactive waste dump near Mercury, Nev. AP

Many Americans know that President Obama and former Nevada Sen. Harry Reid illegally shutdown the Yucca Mountain nuclear-waste repository in 2010. At the time, the shutdown left 65,000 metric tons of high-level radioactive commercial spent fuel stranded in temporary storage at nuclear energy plants across 39 states, including the Columbia Generating Station in Washington State. The nationwide stockpile grew to 80,960 metric tons by last count in December 2017.

What most American taxpayers don’t know is that they are assessed $800 million annually in Department of Justice payments to nuclear energy utilities because of the federal government’s breach of contract to pick up and dispose of the spent nuclear fuel.

The DOJ uses taxpayer funds to pay the utility companies that sue the government for damages every year for not picking up the spent fuel.

If that’s not enough, taxpayers also don’t realize they’ve been saddled with nearly $500 billion in financial liability for managing 57 million gallons of nuclear waste at the Hanford Site from its past production of plutonium for nuclear weapons during World War II and the Cold War era. This waste is stored in aging, leaking underground tanks that present a growing safety risk to the Columbia River and residents living nearby.

The Hanford Site, which is directly adjacent to the city of Richland, is where the waste in tanks designed for temporary storage was long ago supposed to be solidified and placed in metal canisters for permanent disposal at the Yucca Mountain repository or other suitable locations.

In spite of the absence of a Yucca Mountain repository, the U.S. Department of Energy and its contractors have adhered to the original but now obsolete plan to convert Cold War waste into glass. Without a repository licensed to receive the glass waste, the plant designers don’t even know for sure if they have the correct specifications for treating and packaging the high-level waste for long-term disposal. Since the year 2000, these plants have cost taxpayers billions and the cost to complete the Hanford vitrification plant is currently unknown, according to a 2017 U.S. Government Accountability Office study (GAO-17-306).

Problems with construction and questions about whether the vitrification process will work as planned have delayed completion of the Hanford plant for more than a decade. The current estimated date for completion and startup is 2038 — 20 more years — nearly 90 years after the first waste was generated and stored at Hanford. The GAO report conservatively estimates that in addition to the construction costs, the operating cost to treat the waste for disposal will approach $800 billion to a $1 trillion.

Meanwhile, safer, quicker, and less costly methods have been developed for processing and disposing of the low-level tank waste at Hanford. Ninety percent of the 57 million gallons of waste in the tanks can be managed as low-level waste after it is pretreated by filtering and removing cesium. Only the high-level waste needs to be converted to glass (vitrified) for disposal at a deep geologic repository like Yucca Mountain.

But since Congress refuses to move forward with licensing a repository at Yucca Mountain (or anywhere else), it makes no sense for the government to support an ever-growing financial liability to complete a vitrification plant at Hanford.

In addition to the waste stored in the underground tanks, there also are 2,400 metric tons of spent fuel stored at Hanford from the shutdown N-Reactor, which was the world’s first dual-duty reactor that produced plutonium for weapons as well as 860 megawatts of electric power. This spent fuel containing high-level weapons-grade plutonium already has been packaged to conform to Yucca Mountain disposal specifications.

On a hopeful note, a federal court order in 2014 determined that President Obama did not have the authority to stop the Yucca Mountain Project and directed the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to complete the safety and environmental reviews of the Yucca Mountain site.

The NRC completed those reviews and determined that Yucca Mountain complies with all regulations as a safe and suitable site for a nuclear waste repository. Now, Congress could authorize the Nuclear Waste Fund to be used for its intended purpose — to license and complete the Yucca Mountain repository.

The Nuclear Waste Fund has received nearly $46 billion paid by nuclear utility ratepayers for the purpose of building a repository. According to the Energy Department, more than $11 billion has been spent on the Yucca Mountain repository and other waste program activities. Since the Yucca Mountain Project was stopped for political reasons, Congress has been buying U.S. bonds with the remaining $34 billion to offset the current deficit rather than licensing and building a nuclear-waste repository.

Last summer, politics interfered again when the Senate Republicans killed a $120 million provision to restart the Yucca Mountain licensing process in a desperate attempt to keep Republican Sen. Dean Heller from losing the midterm race in Nevada to Democrat Jacky Rosen and her NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) politics. Heller lost to Rosen and Republicans lost their chance to restart Yucca Mountain while they controlled both the House and Senate.

As long as the government delays in building a repository, taxpayers will continue to pay damages to commercial nuclear utility owners across the nation for the cost of storing and providing security for the growing inventory of spent nuclear fuel.

Settlements paid with taxpayer funds as of 2017 amount to $6.9 billion and the Energy Department estimates further liability to be $27.2 billion.

But this government/taxpayer liability is ongoing and will continue to increase every year until the Energy Department provides a realistic date for when it can take the spent nuclear fuel from the utilities for storage or disposal at a repository, and DOE is waiting for Congress to authorize funds from the Nuclear Waste Fund.

If the midterm defeat of Sen. Heller, Republican backpedaling, and Harry Reid-style fear-mongering on Yucca Mountain has proven anything, it’s this: Nevada’s NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) politics should not be allowed to hold the rest of the country hostage. All U.S. taxpayers, especially those of us in the Pacific Northwest, have a right to hold their elected officials responsible for the continued misuse of their tax dollars.

Robert L. Ferguson is a former deputy assistant energy secretary and the author of “Nuclear Waste in Your Backyard: Who’s to Blame and How to Fix It.”