Imagine if we could take the most dangerous waste in the world and ship it by rocket into the sun. While the costs of doing this would be prohibitive, in the coming century we may be able to bring the sun to the waste. Scientists are working on fusion reactors and high-powered lasers that in the future may be able to obliterate nuclear waste. Highly radioactive material would be broken down into a harmless soup of sub-atomic particles.
Unfortunately, our present reality is this: 65,000 metric tons of commercial spent nuclear fuel. This is stored at 75 sites in 33 states and it increases by 2,000 metric tons every year. Eleven of these sites are located in Pennsylvania or adjoining states.
Most of this spent fuel is kept in secure pools to keep the waste cool. When space in the pools run out, waste is transferred to dry casks and monitored closely. Both of these solutions are meant to be temporary.
For over five decades, the federal government has recognized that the best long-term solution to storing waste would be deep beneath the earth inside a stable mountain. In the early 1980s, after years of half-hearted attempts, the federal government set out to determine the best location for a national nuclear waste repository.
At the same time, operators of nuclear power plants were required to contribute to a federal government fund to pay for the design and construction of the repository. The government has collected $25 billion in fees. While the plant operators pay these fees, the fees contribute to higher energy bills for consumers.
After years of investigation and analysis, Yucca Mountain in the Nevada desert was selected as the site for the repository. At this time, $15 billion was spent evaluating the site and applying for the license. Despite billions already spent, the Department of Energy, at the direction of President Obama, shut down the project.
Just this week, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released their report on the Obama administration decision to shut down Yucca Mountain and the repercussions it will have on how we store nuclear waste. The report clearly stated: "The Department of Energy's decision to terminate the Yucca Mountain repository program was made for policy reasons, not technical or safety reasons."
The Majority Leader of the Senate and close Obama-ally Harry Reid (D-NV) has long opposed the project. This is despite support for the repository among his constituents living closest to the facility. Obama bowed to pressure from Reid and even appointed a long-time Reid staffer to serve on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
The GAO report reveals the hasty shut down of the project. While contractors working on Yucca Mountain said that they would need two years to properly shut things down, they were given four months. Staff on the Yucca Mountain project could have been retained to work on another long-term solution, but instead they were given six months to find a new job. Offices were closed down; furniture, construction equipment, and scientific equipment were sold off as soon as possible.
Upon shutting down the project, the President called for a new "blue-ribbon" panel to consider what to do with waste. They can consider every option--except using Yucca Mountain.
Unfortunately, we may now also lack the funding to ever build an alternative. With $15 billion spent on nothing, the remaining $10 billion will not be enough to locate and study a new site. This is further complicated by the fact that some nuclear plants will be decommissioned in the coming years. These plants will stop paying fees and, by law, the government will own the waste.
In ancient times, armies would destroy a city and then sow salt in order to symbolize that it should never be rebuilt. The Department of Energy has attempted to sow salt at Yucca Mountain. The GAO concluded that the way Yucca Mountain was hastily closed down would make it difficult to restart.
Unfortunately, we can't wait for science fiction to solve our nuclear waste problem. While it may be difficult to restart, Yucca Mountain is a much safer alternative than letting waste reside all across the country. Let's not let politics trump science and sense.