The 2019 Energy and Water Appropriations bill that President Trump signed early last month provides no funding for Yucca Mountain. In doing so, it officially extends by another year the U.S. government’s failure to implement a portion of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 whereby the government would accept responsibility for managing the spent fuel from commercial nuclear reactors.
In the 1950s, when public faith in government was high, a decision to entrust a federal agency with safely managing waste from the country’s commercial nuclear reactors was relatively uncontroversial. Today, the idea is almost unthinkable. In all likelihood, Yucca Mountain will never be approved as the repository for spent reactor fuel, even though the government has already spent $15 billion designing and constructing the facility.
More than 81,000t of nuclear waste is stored at 61 current and former reactor sites across the country. In over 70 judgements, the courts have ordered the government to pay the utilities’ storage costs dating back to 1998 when the government was supposed to have taken possession. The bill to date is over $6 billion, and the DOE estimates the cost to taxpayers will total $29 billion by 2022. While there has not yet been an environmental accident or security incident, the storage facilities require constant security and were never designed to be more than a temporary solution until the rods were turned over to the U.S. government for long-term disposal.
The first step to ending the stalemate is for the Administration and Congress to accept that trust cannot be restored to the process that selected Yucca Mountain. A new “consent-based” process needs to be started that will enable the public, local communities, states, and government officials at all levels to trust in the fair and transparent selection and development of a long-term repository site.
A key question is asking the once-unthinkable: should the U.S. government have primary responsibility? Several organizations have recommended that the government must be distanced, or even removed, from the political process surrounding waste storage. It pains me to conclude that the government’s role in this matter must be reduced, due to the trust deficit. The failure to restore trust is a guarantee that the current political standoff will continue and taxpayers will be forced to pay billions each year for a temporary solution.
Adapted from a piece originally published by The Hill on 10/18/2018