In the southern Nevada desert about 100 miles from Las Vegas rises a mountain ridge. Under this ridge sits a complex of tunnels dug by the federal government. They sit empty and unused and having cost taxpayers and electric ratepayers over $15 billion to dig.
Yucca Mountain was supposed to be the nation's nuclear waste repository. The site wasn't chosen on a whim. In fact, a Senate report on Yucca Mountain dubbed it: "The Most Studied Real Estate on the Planet."
For decades, the government drilled into the mountain to study its geology and test methods to safely store the nation's nuclear waste. Right now, waste is stored at 131 sites across the country. This includes privately operated nuclear energy facilities, government labs, and military installations.
These are safe facilities. Dangerous waste is stored behind multiple layers of security and is routinely checked for any problems. However, much of this waste will remain radioactive for a very long time, much longer than the life of a reactor. In some cases, the reactor that created the waste has been shut down for years.
Decades ago, Congress decided that the nation should build a single, secure facility to house most of the nation's waste. The site needed to be geologically sound and at least somewhat remote. The Department of Energy started studying Yucca Mountain in 1978. A few years later, Congress ordered nuclear plant operators to contribute to a fund that would help build the storage facility. Approximately $25 billion has been collected to date.
Right from the start, activist groups have promoted disinformation about the potential for problems. Instead of working to alleviate irrational fears, Nevada Senator Harry Reid decided to take a populist stand against the facility.
In vote after vote, Congress supported the project, allocating funds and moving the process forward. Reid could never muster more than a handful of Senators and Congressmen to oppose Yucca Mountain. However, with his rise to the position of Senate Majority Leader, another path to stopping Yucca Mountain opened up.
Because of his leadership position, Reid did not publicly support Barack Obama until after the 2008 Democratic primary. However, the behind the scenes book about the election, Game Change, maintains that Reid encouraged Obama to run for President as early as 2006.
Upon becoming President, Obama nominated Gregory Jaczko to serve as Chairman of Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Jaczko was a long-time aide to Reid known for his opposition to Yucca Mountain. Just a few months into his term, Jaczko shut down the project without bothering to ask Congress.
The President called for a new "blue ribbon" panel to consider how waste should be stored. The panel could recommend anything, except for Yucca Mountain. Harry Reid got what he wanted without having to build a majority in the House or Senate.
A Government Accountability Office report last year concluded that: "The Department of Energy's decision to terminate the Yucca Mountain repository program was made for policy reasons, not technical or safety reasons."
At the time of the shut down, the facility was undergoing an application process ordered by Congress. The NRC tried to stop this process that would certify Yucca Mountain as safe. However, government bureaucrats cannot openly defy the will of Congress and so courts have ordered the process to continue.
Instead of doing the work, the NRC refused to budge saying that they lacked the funds to complete the process. This week, the House voted 326-81 to contribute another $10 million to finish the application. There should be no more excuses.
Unfortunately for taxpayers and electric ratepayers, most of the money set aside to build long-term storage has already been spent on Yucca Mountain. Pennsylvanians alone have contributed over $1.4 billion to the fund.
It is unlikely that Yucca Mountain will be the permanent home of all this waste. One day we may be able to shoot waste into the sun or pulverize it with lasers. But until science fiction becomes reality, we need safe storage. Yucca Mountain is clearly the best option and has overwhelming bipartisan support. It's time for the cronyism to stop and for common sense to prevail.