A Better Solution for Nuclear Leftovers

May 21, 2009

For over two decades, it has been planning a trip to the desert.

The trip just got canceled.

“It” is the spent fuel produced by Connecticut’s nuclear-power plants. Tons of the stuff -- and no, it’s not gooey, green, or glowing -- has been created by Connecticut Yankee in Haddam and the three Millstone reactors in Waterford.

And most of it isn’t supposed to be in the Nutmeg State.

In 1982, the atomic-energy industry agreed to let the feds manage the final disposition of the irradiated uranium rods it uses to generate electricity. Five years later, D.C. politicians -- not scientists or corporations -- selected Yucca Mountain, a mound of volcanic rock 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, for a permanent repository.

It didn’t take long for problems to develop. Eco-loons and Nevada’s political careerists hurled every legal and regulatory obstacle they could at the project. In addition, further study of the factors that attracted the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to the site yielded some inconvenient conclusions. “Yucca Mountain has turned out to be wetter and its geology more complex than proponents had first thought,” The New York Times reported in 2001. To address the natural flaws, the DOE designed, in the words of an anti-Yucca propagandist, “a mad hatter, erector-set array of exotic and highly questionable engineering fixes -- everything from waste disposal containers that are supposed to last for between 11,000 to 750,000 years to over 100 miles of emplacement tunnels lined with titanium drip shields.”

Work continued for two reasons. First, the nuclear lobby believed that despite constant schedule slippage and cost overruns, DOE could still build and operate the facility -- thus solving the industry’s spent-fuel problem and spurring the rebirth of atomic power. Second, non-Nevada pols longed for the day when they could tell constituents that dangerous radioactive “waste” was leaving their neighborhoods on a one-way journey.

Born in politics, Yucca Mountain now appears to have been killed by politics. Desperate for Nevada’s support in tough primary and general-election contests, Barack Obama pledged his opposition to the project. Earlier this month, his administration proposed a 32 percent cut to the DOE’s repository budget, the first step in implementing its plan to “terminate the Yucca Mountain program” and develop “disposal alternatives.”

“The termination language … could not be any clearer -- Yucca is history,” crowed U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV).

It’s usually a safe bet to oppose a decision Reid supports. This time’s different. There was plenty of irresponsible scaremongering associated with the anti-Yucca campaign, and DOE geeks probably could have made the project work. But there were several sound reasons to oppose the repository, the most prominent being its resemblance to a Cold War-era exercise in technocracy, not a decentralized approach suited for a deregulated energy market.

The federal-run “solution” is easy to understand, given nuclear power’s history. Atomic electricity, wrote Robert J. Duffy in Nuclear Politics in America, “is … the product of an unprecedented partnership between the federal government and private enterprise, and the industry owes its existence to decades of federal support and protection.” (Nuclear Renewal author Richard Rhodes observed that it was a pro-nuclear federal bureaucrat, not a utility executive, who in 1954 promised electricity “too cheap to meter.”)

In the 1970s, Three Mile Island and Jane Fonda’s “The China Syndrome” helped change Washington’s love affair with the atom. As a recent U.S. Government Accountability Office report documented, federal R&D subsides to the industry declined by 90 percent between 1978 and 2005.

But a curious thing happened after nuclear power lost its federal patron. The industry thrived. It achieved remarkable economies of scale through consolidation. Its safety record soared. The reactor fleet’s average “capacity factor,” described by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) as the “ratio of the net electricity generated … to the energy that could have been generated at continuous full-power operation,” rose from 64.5 percent in 1978 to 91.5 percent in 2008.

That’s why many pro-nuclear voices have begun to doubt the need for a nationalized nuke repository. A diverse strategy -- recycling spent fuel for reuse in reactors, exporting it, establishing regional centers for long-term storage in steel-and-concrete containers, exploring the most promising transmutation technologies -- may be safer and cheaper.

The best plan for the post-Yucca world is to return the tens of billions of dollars ratepayers contributed to the federal Nuclear Waste Fund to the companies that operate the country’s 104 nuclear reactors. Under the NRC’s watchful eye they can, and should, take out their trash.

D. Dowd Muska is a writer, commentator and lecturer. His website is www.dowdmuska.com.

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