Yucca Is Not the Place for Waste

Posted April 20, 2007 at 3:37pm

The American people are being misled in a dangerous effort to satisfy the nuclear industry by turning Nevada into the nation’s nuclear dumping ground. The nuclear industry, with the support of the federal government, is attempting to create a crisis where none exists, and the proposed “solution” is one that could put millions of Americans at risk.

The nuclear industry wants to ship 77,000 tons of high-level nuclear waste from more than 100 sites across the country to Nevada, where it would be buried inside Yucca Mountain, 90 miles outside of Las Vegas.

To achieve its goal, the industry and its allies are trying to scare people into believing that it is unsafe to have the waste stored in the existing facilities where the waste has sat safely for years.

They are dead wrong in their approach.

Under the Energy Department’s plan, over the course of two decades hundreds of truck and rail shipments would haul the waste through the nation’s cities and towns, past schools, hospitals, churches and businesses before ultimately arriving at Yucca Mountain. Given the amount of waste and number of shipments being considered, there is a high statistical probability that an accident would occur at some point. Additionally, waste that had been stored in secure facilities would now be exposed to the threat of terrorism as it is carried by truck and rail across the country. And for what? After all is said and done, even if Yucca became a reality, there would still be nuclear waste stored at the facilities where the waste is produced because the waste has to cool for years before it could be shipped. So now instead of limiting storage to the 100 or so existing sites, we would have Yucca Mountain, plus hundreds more “mobile sites” as the waste is hauled across the country.

Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act in 1982 to address the issue of nuclear waste storage; and in 1987 Congress limited the Energy Department’s search for a deep geological site solely to Yucca Mountain.

Now, 25 years and $12 billion later, there is nothing to show for it but a big hole in a mountain, which is scientifically unfit to store 77,000 tons of nuclear waste. Yet, despite the questions about the science surrounding the project, despite the e-mails from employees indicating some of the research may have been falsified and despite the fact that the company behind Boston’s “Big Dig” is overseeing the proposed nuclear waste dump, the DOE keeps on digging.

Earlier this year, we introduced the Federal Accountability for Nuclear Waste Storage Act. This bipartisan legislation would require nuclear waste to be stored at the facilities where it is produced, thus eliminating the need for Yucca Mountain.

Our bill would require the federal government to take responsibility for possession, stewardship, maintenance and monitoring of the waste and increase safety at all nuclear power plants by providing funding for additional security to guard against accidents or terrorist attacks.

This legislation is beneficial for a number of reasons. First, by keeping the waste on site we eliminate the risk of our nation’s nuclear waste becoming a target or weapon while being transported on our highways and railways. Second, we will be securing the waste in scientifically sound ways by improving the facilities where the waste already is being stored. Third, and perhaps most importantly, the American taxpayer will no longer face the burden of wasteful government spending on Yucca Mountain.

A recent study by Dr. Michael Thorne, an international expert on cost studies, determined the cost of onsite nuclear waste storage to be significantly less than the cost of building and operating Yucca Mountain. Using the Department of Energy’s own figures, Dr. Thorne estimated the on-site storage cost to be $13.3 billion, while the Yucca Mountain Project is estimated to cost at least $38.3 billion and could possibly reach as much as $100 billion. Thorne’s study also found that taxpayers would save at least $30.8 billion if Yucca Mountain were never built.

Even Edward Sproat, director of the Energy Department’s Office of Civilian Waste Management, acknowledges the burden of this project on the American taxpayer. In a recent speech he said, “If the ‘take title’ bill passes, it stops the hemorrhaging of taxpayer dollars immediately. And given the over $19 billion already in the fund, there is more than enough money already collected to pay for storing the waste at reactor sites indefinitely.”

The legislation we have introduced is the best solution to the challenge of storage of nuclear waste. It addresses the transportation, public safety and national security challenges associated with nuclear waste while allowing us to focus our efforts and resources on other possible long-term solutions.

We look forward to working with our colleagues in both chambers of Congress and on both sides of the aisle to address this pressing issue.

Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is the Senate Majority Leader. Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) is chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.