Editorial: Yucca Mountain: Report shows need for interim site
Published Sunday, December 27, 1998
The U.S. Energy Department's recent report on YuccaMountain, finding no "show stoppers" to impede development of a perpetual tomb for nuclear waste, is good news only in the sense that any such impediment would be very bad news indeed.
Serious questions remain about the site's suitability, some old and some renewed, and these will be addressed in the next stage of review. That examination will ask whether tunnels and vaults beneath the Nevada mountain can reliably hold nuclear waste within environmental protection limits that are yet to be written.
The answer will necessarily braid highly technical considerations with purely political ones. If the answer is no, the nation will face the full consequences of selecting a single basket -- YuccaMountain -- for all its radioactive eggs.
But some consequences are already making themselves felt. Nuclear waste continues to accumulate at 70-some reactors operated by U.S. utilities. So do charges to these companies and their customers for temporary storage at the plants -- and for levies to support the national repository, which was to have opened last January but now, in the most hopeful scenario, can't be ready before 2010. Some utilities are suing the federal government to recover their costs of that delay, and winning; that could shift a burden in the billions to all taxpayers.
With no alternative to YuccaMountain in sight -- and none possible until its issues are settled -- the need for an interim national storage site grows sharper. A promising site is available near the mountain in territory once used for testing nuclear weapons. But its use has been blocked by Nevada officials, who prefer a site in someone else's back yard, and an allied Clinton administration.
Interim storage is also opposed by a wide range of groups, led by Public Citizen, which use somewhat inconsistent environmental arguments to mask a central philosophy that nuclear power is an irredeemably bad idea, and a political calculation that easing the waste problem will only help an industry they prefer to see shut down.
Without underestimating the hazards posed by spent reactor fuel, its concentration in one remote, unpopulated area is clearly preferable to its continued dispersal throughout the nation. Having it in long-term storage is certainly better than having it subject to dozens of separately licensed cycles of removal, packaging and storage. Minnesotans who remember the long fight over Northern States Power Co.'s Prairie Island plant can appreciate this point -- especially if they consider that NSP will fill its allotted casks by 2001, and would shut down in about 2007 unless the state let it build more.
Oddly, Public Citizen extols the safety of on-site, dry-cask storage at 70 scattered plants while sounding alarms about the dangers of collecting those casks in the Nevada desert. And it continues to overemphasize the risks of transporting the casks to a central repository, dismissing both the nation's excellent safety record with past shipments and its eventual need to concentrate the waste.
There are good points to be made against splitting atoms to make electricity, but that argument was decided long ago. Nuclear plants now provide 20 percent of the nation's electricity, and as concerns over global warming and other environmental costs of burning coal continue to rise, the decision looks better than it used to.
The waste issue is a separate question and deserves to be treated as such. Even if every nuclear plant in the country shut down today, the waste problem would be nearly as large and every bit as urgent. It is past time to establish a long-term interim storage site in the Nevada desert, partly in preparation for YuccaMountain passing all its tests -- and partly in case it fails.
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