Mired in Yucca Muck
Nuclear power is trendy again, but what about the waste?
Until just recently, no American president had toured a nuclear plant since Jimmy Carter-fitting for a country that's been spooked by atomic power since the partial, albeit contained, meltdown at Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island plant in 1979. But President Bush has ended the freeze and taken tours of two nuclear plants. In May, he stood under twin cooling towers in Limerick, Pa., announcing that nuclear power is vital to energy independence and fighting global warming. "And," he noted, "nuclear power is safe."
Beleaguered nuclear supporters have waited decades to hear such full-throated support. No new nuclear plant has been licensed since 1978-in part because of public backlash, but also because of basic economics. Cheap natural gas became the standard for the power industry. But the calculus is changing as natural gas prices have skyrocketed, energy independence has become a political mantra, and pressure to cut greenhouse gas emissions-nuclear is virtually emission free-has increased. Some believe a "nuclear renaissance" is at hand. The industry got a boost when Bush signed the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which gave federal risk insurance to new nuclear plants, along with generous tax breaks and loan guarantees.
Since then, at least a dozen utilities have filed plans to apply for new nuclear licenses. Still, major obstacles remain-chief among them what to do with nuclear waste. Solving the waste problem is the "linchpin" to expanding nuclear power, says John Rowe, CEO of Exelon, the largest nuclear operator in the country. The answer was supposed to be the Yucca Mountain Repository, to be built inside a mountain 80 miles northwest of Las Vegas. Yucca Mountain, says Rowe, is essential to the industry's future. But eight years after Yucca was scheduled to start accepting waste, even optimists say the earliest the controversial repository could open is 2017. So Washington is wrangling anew over what to do with the 54,000 metric tons of accumulated nuclear waste that has been produced by the country's 103 reactors. Most of it sits in temporary concrete and steel casks on the plant sites-waiting for a permanent home whose future is very much in doubt.
Whose backyard? It wasn't supposed to be this way. In 1982, Congress directed the Department of Energy to build a secure place to hold nuclear waste by 1998. Five years later, Congress narrowed the list of studied sites to one: Yucca Mountain. Nevadans cried foul, noting that the state lacked a single nuclear plant and that it was selected only because it had little political clout. Authorities say Yucca Mountain, on federal land that had already hosted nuclear tests, is an ideal location; indeed, a law passed by Congress in 2002 reaffirmed that Yucca is the official site of the federal nuclear repository. Authorities say it's isolated, dry, and has a low water table, decreasing the chance of rainwater carrying contaminants into the environment. "Scientists tell us this is the right place to store this fuel," says Sen. Pete Domenici, chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Right or not, the site has been bedeviled by problems. In 1986, the DOE issued a stop-work order to the U.S. Geological Survey because of "quality assurance" issues, said a federal report. In the 1990s, audits found recurring problems with accuracy of scientific data, software, and computer models simulating possible geological events. And in 2004, a federal court ruled that the EPA must increase its study of the possible effects of radiation at the site from 10,000 years out to 1 million years out. That, of course, takes time. Meanwhile, the Nevada delegation, led by now powerful Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, who has denigrated Yucca as "a dying beast," has had some success fulfilling that prophecy by slowing money to the project.