Sentinel editorial: Nuclear power, a corner with no exit
It's the ultimate rock-and-a-hard-place conundrum. Federal law and a two-year-old court order supporting it require the U.S. Department of Energy to take charge of spent fuel from nuclear power plants. The deadline was January 31, 1998. But nothing happened on that day, or on the day after, or on any day since. The department says it can't comply with the law because it just doesn't know what to do with the highly radioactive stuff.
Yes, about $15 billion has been collected from electricity customers to pay for nuclear-waste disposal, but the money hasn't bought a scientifically acceptable solution. A deep underground site in Nevada is under consideration but it's not ready, and may never be ready, because there are grave doubts about its long-term safety.
So what's a nuclear power plant to do?
Why sue, of course. That's what Maine Yankee Atomic Power Company, Connecticut Yankee Atomic Power Company and Yankee Atomic Electric Company have done, seeking about $300 million from the government for breaking its promise. Northern States Power Company in Minnesota has also sued. It wants more than a billion dollars for its troubles.
The Yankee utilities own three reactors in New England -- including Yankee Rowe, which is about 35 miles southwest of Keene -- that have been shut down permanently in recent years. Tons of nuclear waste remain on the sites, for want of a disposal solution. That waste must be constantly monitored and carefully guarded from accidents and potential terrorism. So the companies are in an extraordinary economic and radioactive pickle -- facing the possibility they'll have to stay in business for the next hundred thousand years or so with significant continuing expenses and no revenues.
No wonder they sued. And if they succeed, they'll certainly be joined by other utilities as more power plants reach the ends of their useful lives in the years to come.
The Energy Department contends that it is immune to lawsuits of this kind. But a federal appeals court recently ruled that the utilities do indeed have the right to sue the government. The Energy Department's general counsel responded by saying, "We will be discussing our litigation options with the Department of Justice in the coming weeks."
There's plenty of blame to go around here. In 1998, when the Department of Energy
missed its disposal deadline, the president of the industry's lobbying organization, the
Nuclear Energy Institute, said: "American taxpayers and electricity consumers have a
right to be outraged by the federal government's failure to perform." He's correct.
But people also have a right to be outraged by the nuclear industry's behavior. After
nearly three decades of commercial nuclear power operations -- and three decades of
government and industry assurances that nuclear power is safe and economical -- Americans
are faced with paying the cost not only of the power and the waste disposal, but also of
the court-imposed judgments levied on the government for its inability to act. Such are
the consequences of allowing ourselves to be led into a corner from which there may be no