By Jim DeMint & Jeff Duncan
President Barack Obama has bragged in public about making significant energy investments to stimulate the economy. Yet, a federal watchdog has determined he terminated a major national energy project for purely political reasons, a decision that will cost taxpayers billions and could increase risks to public safety.
Citing no research and offering no scientific justification, a spokesman for President Obama's Energy Department declared in 2009, "nuclear waste storage at Yucca Mountain is not an option, period."
In summarizing a scathing new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, The New York Times recently wrote that, "The Obama administration's rushed efforts to shut down Yucca Mountain were strictly political and could set back the opening of a nuclear waste repository by more than 20 years... The administration killed the repository program last year without citing technical or safety issues, and restarting the costly and time-consuming process of finding a permanent repository or an alternative solution could take decades and cost billions of additional dollars."
Approved by Congress in 2002, Yucca Mountain is a multi-billion dollar facility built in the remote Nevada desert as the nation's first long-term storage for high-level radioactive waste. Nuclear waste produced in the development of nuclear energy and nuclear weapons that are currently stored around the country were to be moved to Yucca beginning in 2020. This would have included waste from the Savannah River site, Duke Energy's Oconee and Catawba nuclear plants, and SCANA's Jenkinsville nuclear plant.
Yet after decades of studies and years of construction, President Obama decided to close Yucca Mountain to appease his liberal base of radical environmentalists and as a favor to Democrat Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Despite Yucca's unexplained closure, the amount of hazardous nuclear waste continues to grow around the country at facilities that were promised by the government that there would be a secure long-term storage site. Currently, there are nearly 65,000 metric tons of spent fuel being stored at 75 different sites in 33 states. Each year, the inventory of spent fuel increases by 2,000 metric tons.
Since 1983, the government has spent more than $15 billion evaluating potential nuclear storage sites, studying Yucca Mountain and working towards obtaining the proper permits for it. The effort began to decrease the safety risk of having numerous above-ground storage sites of highly-radioactive materials around the country, and to instead centrally locate the materials safely underground where security could be tightened.
The National Academy of Scientists has said, "There is strong worldwide consensus that the best, safest long-term option for dealing with HLW (high-level radioactive waste) is geological isolation." Yucca Mountain is one of very few locations that fit that requirement.
By shutting down Yucca Mountain, the Obama Administration has not only risked public safety and an enormous taxpayer investment, but also jeopardized the future of the country's entire nuclear program. As the GAO report states: "Prolonging on-site storage could also increase opposition to expansion of the nuclear industry, according to state and industry officials... For example, Minnesota officials noted that negative public reaction to a proposal to increase dry-cask storage at a nuclear plant led the state legislature to impose a moratorium on new nuclear plants. At least 12 other states have similar prohibitions on new construction, 9 of which can be lifted when a means of disposing of spent nuclear fuel can be demonstrated."
Although Yucca's closing will impact millions of Americans who depend on clean nuclear energy and who work in those sectors, the Obama administration has offered little explanation for their actions.
It took decades of scientific studies to successfully prove Yucca Mountain would improve American energy security and safely store nuclear waste underground. But without a single scientific study, it took only a few short months for Obama's Department of Energy to announce plans to terminate the program.
In February 2010 President Obama killed all funding for Yucca Mountain in his budget and a few months later the Department of Energy began taking aggressive actions to dismantle the program, terminating hundreds of workers and contractors, including a number of highly trained scientists and their support personnel. Truckloads of federal property were abandoned and hundreds of offices were shuttered in a matter of months.
GAO investigators said in their report, "Reconstituting this expertise and teamwork could be difficult. DOE has left itself vulnerable to losses in both experienced staff and physical property." It went on to say, "Several DOE officials told us that they had never seen such a large program with so much pressure to close down so quickly."
The Department of Energy has responsibility, under the law, to move forward with the Yucca Mountain project, and it clearly misspent money allocated by Congress that was intended to complete Yucca Mountain and instead used to close it down.
Simply put, the Obama administration ignored science, ignored the law, and ignored the years of taxpayer investment. While they chose dirty politics over clean energy, we will continue to fight for commonsense energy policy.
We will pursue legislation to require that the Department of Energy either restarts the Yucca project or repays the billions of taxpayer dollars back to the states that funded Yucca's development. Additionally, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which is independent from the Department of Energy, should resume its technical review of the Yucca application and release all pertinent data concerning the project, so that Americans may evaluate the project on its scientific and safety merits.
In June of 2010, President Obama said, "As we recover from this recession, the transition to clean energy has the potential to grow our economy and create millions of jobs -- but only if we accelerate that transition. Only if we seize the moment."
Unfortunately, President Obama has seized the moment to reward political allies at the expense of the nation's prosperity and energy security.