Tyrus W. Cobb: Yucca will happen – are we prepared for it?
Despite strenuous efforts by Nevada’s Congressional Delegation and the Obama administration, the Yucca Repository will soon be reopened. This is because of a combination of legal actions and the impact of the Japanese tsunami on where nuclear waste will be stored.
A number of states, lead by South Carolina and Washington, have initiated litigation to overturn the Department of Energy’s attempt to close Yucca. Since the law of the land, the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982/87, designated Yucca as the nation’s repository, they will certainly win. Sen. Harry Reid knows he does not have the votes in Congress to overturn that act, but has starved the project through the appropriations process to temporarily halt the licensing of Yucca. No longer.
In addition, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the body charged with responsibility for overseeing nuclear energy issues, also will soon concur that halting the licensing process was illegal. Already an NRC technical panel has reached that conclusion. The full NRC has delayed voting on the question only because Sen. Reid’s former staffer, Greg Jasco, is the head of the NRC. No longer.
But it was the impact of the Japanese tsunami that has brought the question of nuclear waste disposition to the fore. Images of the flood waters penetrating the cooling ponds at the reactor sites where the waste is temporarily stored brought home the real danger of leaving this toxic substance in such an exposed position.
Japan only keeps the waste temporarily on site and then reprocesses the spent fuel. The Obama administration does not favor reprocessing or even storage at a secure military site. It wants to leave the waste at the reactor sites. However, to its credit, it has at least abandoned the concept of storing waste for a long term (like 300,000 years) and has decided that it will only be necessary to hold the waste for an interim period, say 100-120 years. The belief is that a scientific solution to waste disposal will be discovered in that time frame. I agree.
America faces a choice. For interim storage we can place that material deep underground at a very secure military site in the desert (Yucca), already prepared and 100 miles from any populated area. Or, conversely, as Obama, Reid, and DOE Secretary Steven Chu, now prefer, to leave that waste indefinitely at more than 100 nuclear reactor sites and defense installations, usually above ground and weakly defended. These reactors are often located in volcanic prone regions, vulnerable to terrorists or tsunami, and within five miles of 165 million people.
The choice is obvious. Dr. Chu, who as head of the Lawrence Berkley lab in 2006 signed on to a manifesto endorsing Yucca as the best option, is already considering the logistics of reopening the repository. Legal considerations and public clamor will make this necessary.
The question is whether the state of Nevada will continue it’s expensive and resource draining opposition. Nevada receives back less from the Federal government than virtually any other state, despite our powerful delegation in Congress. Why? Because we have asked for so very little, except to stop this project.
Harry Reid, Dean Heller, and others have referred to Yucca as that “damned $100 billion project.” Wow! Isn’t it time for Nevada to demand that it receive not only the direct economic benefits Yucca brings (1,500 top paying jobs already lost), but compensation along the line of the billions that Alaska receives in its trust fund for oil extraction? And the establishment of a research and energy park charged with examining the potential offered by reprocessing and alternative energies?
For me the choice is obvious – let’s negotiate now.
• Tyrus W. Cobb served as Special Assistant to President Reagan for International Technology Affairs.