Sensenbrenner: Don’t Abandon Yucca Mountain

Posted July 22, 2010 at 2:55pm

A Nuclear Regulatory Commission panel reviewing President Barack Obama’s request to permanently shutter Nevada’s Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository recently found something lacking in the administration’s case — merit.

The administration’s case for closing Yucca Mountain wasn’t based on valid safety concerns, sound science or funding concerns. It was simply a “matter of policy.”

The real reason for this about-face on Yucca Mountain had nothing to do with policy and everything to do with politics. Obama is seeking to kill Yucca Mountain before it opens not because it is good for the American people but because it is good for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D), who is engaged in a tough re-election campaign in Nevada.

While paying lip service to the need for more nuclear power, Obama is quietly doing an inside-the-Beltway favor for Reid, who is leading the Cape Wind-style, not-in-my-backyard opposition to the project. But the president can’t have it both ways. Long-term storage of waste is critical to growth in the nuclear industry.

Last year, Obama moved to withdraw Yucca Mountain for consideration by the commission as a waste facility by saying Yucca Mountain “isn’t a workable option.” Despite a $10 billion taxpayer investment and nearly 30 years of development to prepare the facility for use, Obama is simply — and incredibly — walking away.

Harder to ignore is the spent nuclear fuel that is already burdening the industry. Every day that passes without an acceptable waste storage solution costs taxpayers money. Federal law required the government to accept responsibility for spent fuel beginning in 1998. The government has failed to meet this obligation.

Since the early 1980s, ratepayers have put about $30 billion into a nuclear waste fund designed to pay for Yucca Mountain or another waste disposal solution. Instead of offering a solution, the federal government is dragging its heels, and utilities are covering the costs to store spent fuel rods on-site.

As a result, utilities are suing the federal government, and they’re winning. So far utilities have filed 70 lawsuits and have been awarded $1.3 billion in penalties. It’s estimated that liability will top $12 billion if no storage solution is in place by 2020. That amount will increase by another $500 million per year after that.

Abandoning Yucca Mountain not only guarantees future litigation, it makes no financial or scientific sense. After research into several sites, in 1987 Congress designated Yucca Mountain as the best location for spent fuel. Congress steered taxpayer dollars to the project. A quarter of a century later, the Obama administration is making the unilateral decision to walk away from Yucca Mountain and abandon the time, research and taxpayer dollars already spent.

If not illegal, this is certainly illogical, given that the administration is presenting no compelling reason for the policy change. After 15 years of study, there is still no evidence that the proposed underground facility at Yucca Mountain — located next to a former nuclear weapon testing zone — poses a risk to human health or the environment.

Worse, the administration seeks to withdraw the Yucca Mountain license application “with prejudice.” That means “forever” in government talk, and if approved, it would prevent the facility from ever being used, regardless of future circumstances.

To temper criticism over his Yucca Mountain policy, the president has established a blue ribbon commission to evaluate the future options for the nuclear industry. Unfortunately, the administration has forbidden the commission from considering Yucca Mountain as a possible solution — so much for objective advice.

One politician who has not criticized the president’s decision is Reid. Facing a tough re-election, Reid celebrated the president’s decision to close Yucca Mountain and thanked him for keeping his “promise.”

This promise of a political favor to Reid seems to be the only justification for the president’s decision.

Fortunately, the drive against Yucca Mountain hasn’t reached its half-life. There is bipartisan support in Congress to save Yucca Mountain. A select but influential group of House Democrats is pressuring the administration to keep funding the project. I intend to work with Members on both sides of the aisle to get an explanation from the administration on this change in direction.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission should be allowed to continue its safety and licensing review of Yucca Mountain. While this happens, Congress should approve funding to keep development of this facility a realistic possibility.

When Yucca Mountain was first approved by Congress, Reid was just elected to the Senate. Two decades later, his successful career has put him in the position to prematurely halt the Yucca Mountain project.

All that has changed between then and now is the job title of one Member of the Senate. Apparently, that’s all it takes for our president to walk away from an integral part of a key energy technology.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) is the ranking member on the Energy Independence and Global Warming Committee.