Abandoning Nevada’s Yucca Mountain as a potential long-term repository for nuclear waste was an Obama campaign promise, and it garnered public support in the state and from opponents of nuclear power everywhere.
Now that the Department of Energy has officially begun the process to , though, it is clear that not everyone shares the same desire to shutter the decades-old project.
The National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, or NARUC, filed a brief with the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board earlier this week that proper processes were not followed to withdraw the application. They also argue that billions of dollars of the public’s money has been spent on the project at Yucca Mountain, and abandoning it now is a step in the wrong direction.
“If we don’t go to Yucca Mountain, what do we do?” asked Brian O’Connell, the director of the nuclear waste program office at NARUC. “The answer is, we have the status quo for an indefinite period until something else comes along.”
The decision to shutter the nation’s only suggested long-term geologic repository for nuclear waste comes at an interesting time. The first are out the door to help build the first new nuclear reactors in more than a decade, and general talk of a nuclear revival has forced the oft-maligned power source back into the energy conversation. O’Connell’s question, then, is all the more relevant—if we aim to produce more nuclear waste, where are we going to put it?
There are no other geologic repositories up for discussion, but the DOE has recently formed a commission that will study the question for two years.
“President Obama is fully committed to ensuring that the Nation meets our long-term storage obligations for nuclear waste,” the DOE’s general counsel, Scott Blake Harris, said in a statement.
For the moment, there aren’t a lot of ideas for meeting those obligations. According to the DOE's Energy Information Administration's most recent data set (2002), there are more than 47,000 metric tons of spent uranium in the country, with about another 2,000 metric tons
produced each year. That means there are more than 100 million pounds of nuclear waste needing a permanent storage solution.
Currently, nuclear waste is first stored in cooling pools and then in at the nuclear power plants themselves; these casks have a good safety history, and will apparently suffice for at least a few more decades. And given the pace of long-term storage research and development to-date, they are much needed decades.
There have been discussions, meanwhile, of temporary regional storage options for radioactive waste. According to Dave Kraft, director of the Illinois-based nuclear watchdog group , dealings in the Illinois state legislature could position the state as a “de facto radioactive waste dump.”
The state senate voted this week to overturn a 23-year-old moratorium on the construction of new nuclear reactors in Illinois. Interestingly, the moratorium was put in place with the expressed purpose of waiting for a suitable permanent waste repository; Yucca Mountain was already under investigation at the time. Now that Yucca is off the table, that ban seems to make even more sense.