November 1, 2012

VIEW FROM AWAY: Muddled positions about nuclear waste no accident

Sacramento Bee

Exposure to nuclear waste is dangerous. Exposure to hypocrisy over nuclear waste also should be avoided.

That's a tough challenge in the current race for the White House. Both President Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney say they support a new generation of nuclear power plants. Both candidates, however, have muddled plans about what to do with the high-level nuclear waste from those plants and waste from an older generation of reactors.

These muddled positions are no accident. They have everything to do with politics -- namely, Nevada's six electoral votes that are up for grabs on Tuesday.

Since 1987, Yucca Mountain in Nevada has been the federal government's leading candidate for a high-level nuclear waste repository. Yet despite the $10 billion spent on the project, the Yucca Mountain repository is unlikely to open in 2017, just as it failed to open in 1998, the original deadline. And it certainly won't open anytime in the future if Obama or Romney have anything to do with it.

Since becoming president, Obama has attempted to kill the Yucca Mountain project, as he promised to do while on the campaign trail in 2008. Obama's Energy Department has sought to withdraw its application for license on the project.

And Obama has appointed Allison Macfarlane, a critic of Yucca Mountain, to chair the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

No doubt, studies have found technical and engineering challenges with Yucca Mountain.

Water moves through this site's underground geology quicker than scientists originally thought. That means that storage of waste would have to be carefully engineered to avoid groundwater contamination.

That, however, is not the reason Yucca Mountain is facing a near-death experience. Even the Government Accountability Office has concluded that political, not technical, hurdles have stalled this project. The biggest of these is Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader from Nevada. Reid, still angry that Congress teamed up against Nevada to designate Yucca Mountain as the nation's waste repository in 1987, is determined to kill the project and has an ally in Obama.

It would be one thing if Reid and Obama were philosophically opposed to nuclear power. They are not. Both say they support a new generation of nuclear power plants. Yet they have yet to outline a long-term plan for safely storing waste from these plants, and more ominously, highly toxic waste from the nation's nuclear weapons plants.

Yes, dry cask storage will safely handle used fuel rods for a century. But should utilities embark on another wave of nuclear plant construction with no firm plan for storing more waste?

You might think Romney, as a supporter of nuclear power, would point out the contradictions of Obama's policy. He seems as interested in pandering for Nevada votes, however, as the president.

In last October's primary debate, Romney argued that states should be allowed to decide if they wanted to host a nuclear waste repository. "I think the people of Nevada ought to have the final say," he said. Good luck, Mr. Romney. If you left the decision to the states, the nation's next nuclear waste repository would be built on ... Mars.

Editorial by the Sacramento Bee

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