More than four years after President Obama took the Yucca Mountain project off the table, the prospects for its revival are in the news again, but with an important difference. This time, Nevada Sen. Harry Reid’s days as Senate majority leader might be numbered.
If control of the Senate changes hands, Republicans will be in the driver’s seat, with the votes needed to appropriate funds to complete the waste repository at Yucca Mountain.
S.C. voters are angered by the large amount of high-level waste from the defense program stored at the Savannah River Site. South Carolina agreed years ago to take the waste, but with the understanding that it would be shipped to the Nevada repository for permanent disposal. Also awaiting shipment is more than 4,000 metric tons of spent fuel at S.C. nuclear plants. Consumers of nuclear-generated electricity — and that’s practically everyone in South Carolina — have paid $1.3 billion to the Nuclear Waste Fund but have yet to see a single waste canister removed.
If nothing else, a recent report by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has made one thing clear: The notion that it would be unsafe to store nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain was a sham. The report found that the repository design met its requirements to hold the waste for one million years.
Despite the hiatus in construction, development of the underground repository is well along. A five-mile tunnel has been built through Yucca Mountain. Metal containers have been buried in the rock, and heated to simulate nuclear waste, so that scientists can gauge the effect on water and rock.
The path forward begins with state governments agreeing that nuclear power needs to grow no matter how many years it takes to complete the repository’s construction. A dozen states — including California, Illinois and Massachusetts — have bans on the construction of new nuclear plants until the waste problem is resolved. That does not make sense when the risk of radiation exposure from nuclear waste is compared to the reality of rising sea levels, extreme storms and devastating forest fires from climate change. The consequences of ignoring the need for zero-carbon nuclear power would be drastic.