American Press

Opinion

American Press Editorial

Nuclear waste is rapidly becoming one of the most pressing environmental problems

1/22/99

Nuclear waste is rapidly becoming one of the most pressing environmental problems in the United States. Unfortunately, efforts to solve that problem are repeatedly making the outlook even more bleak.

To fully grasp the latest problem, it's necessary to refer to a bit of history.

In a 1982 federal law, the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, Congress said the government would find a place to safely store all of the nuclear waste produced by the nation's nuclear plants.

Under the law, the U.S. Department of Energy was obligated to find a site and build a storage facility by Feb. 1, 1998.

The facility and the gathering and storage of the waste would be paid for through a fee imposed on the 72 civilian power plants located in 34 states, with the fee to begin immediately after the law went into effect in 1982.

The civilian companies began to pay the fee, and at the same time piled up their nuclear waste at 72 sites, waiting for the government to begin picking it up.

They are still waiting. The companies have paid the government $15 billion in fees and continue to pay fees at the rate of $1 billion per year.

Meanwhile, the companies have piled up more than 40,000 tons of used reactor fuel, and the amount continues to grow, with no prospect that the government has even located a burial site, much less built a facility.

Finally, a group of power-plant companies filed suit against the government, saying that under the 1982 law, the Department of Energy was obligated to start picking up nuclear waste in 1998, whether or not it had found a burial site.

The companies also wanted their $1 billion-per-year in fees put into an escrow account until the government produced a working burial site and began collecting waste.

The federal government's response was that the Department of Energy had ruled, properly, that it didn't have to start picking up waste until it had a burial facility, regardless of whatever else took place.

The nation's highest court heard the arguments and decided to throw out the case.

That leaves the Department of Energy ruling in place, the fee still being collected, no burial site established and no nuclear waste pickup.

The only site even under consideration by the government at this point is Yucca Mountain in Nevada, about 90 miles north of Las Vegas. However, that site isn't a shoo-in. Lawsuits have halted every government attempt to establish a facility at other sites.

Is that all the bad news there is?

No.

The high court heard arguments by the companies that action was needed because nuclear waste is being temporarily stored at "sites at 72 different locations throughout the nation next to lakes, rivers and streams, which were never chosen, evaluated or qualified for long-term storage, or permanent disposal."

What we have here is a deadlock, and the only hope of breaking it is through intelligent, decisive action by Congress.

Given the history of this business so far, intelligent, decisive action may be as hard to find as a waste site.