Greenville News

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

State needs answers on Yucca

Four of the candidates for the Republican presidential nomination recently expressed various degrees of opposition to the idea of a nuclear waste repository in Nevada during a recent debate. The views are an unfortunate rejection of an idea that is not only necessary for South Carolina and the nation, but also already has cost billions of dollars and remains the only viable proposal to date for safely storing the nation’s radioactive waste.

Rep. Ron Paul, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Texas Gov. Rick Perry said during a recent debate in Las Vegas that Nevada should not be compelled to accept nuclear waste from other states, according to a recent report in The News. Of course, the candidates’ answers were well-received by the live audience.

Former Utah Gov. John Huntsman wasn’t at the debate, but told through a spokesman that he opposed Yucca Mountain.

Two other candidates — Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain — did not respond to the newspaper’s request for comment. Only Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum expressed unequivocal support for Yucca Mountain as a nuclear waste repository.

Whether the other candidates were simply pandering to the Nevadans’ preferences or expressing true opposition to Yucca Mountain, their answers certainly demand more complete explanations about where nuclear waste would be stored. This is especially important to voters in South Carolina where large amounts of nuclear waste are being stored on an ostensibly temporary basis.

Huntsman, to his credit, said South Carolina should be able to count on the federal government’s promise that the state will not become a permanent storage site for nuclear waste from other states. He’s absolutely right about that, though his answer is contradictory.

These candidates and President Barack Obama neglect the fact that not only was a promise made, Congress approved Yucca Mountain as the nation’s nuclear repository and since 1983 the federal government has collected — and continues to collect — billions of dollars from utility ratepayers to fund the repository.

The question of whether Yucca Mountain should be the nation’s storage site for these dangerous wastes was asked and emphatically answered. Until, that is, the Obama administration in cooperation with Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, a powerful Democrat, reversed those years of decision-making and left in limbo yet again the fate of nuclear waste being stored in South Carolina.

About 3,800 tons of nuclear waste is being stored at nuclear power plants in South Carolina. Another 36 million gallons of high-level waste is being stored at the Savannah River Site near Aiken. South Carolina was promised that waste would be sent to a national repository.

At a national repository, nuclear waste would be stored deep below the earth’s surface and would be heavily protected. That waste would be far more secure from leakage, accidents or terrorism in such an underground facility.

The United States has invested more than $14 billion toward establishing Yucca Mountain, according to a 2010 report. It has collected $17 billion from ratepayers. South Carolinians alone have a $2.3 billion at stake in the fund that’s set aside for establishing the repository.

To hear some of the candidates oppose the facility on the basis of “states’ rights” ignores that the question of what to do with nuclear waste is a national problem. The waste at SRS, for example, is a remnant of a weapons program at the site; and nuclear power plants are federally licensed and provide a significant portion of the nation’s electrical power that is shared across state lines.

U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan, whose 3rd Congressional District includes the Savannah River Site, is correct that the candidates — and whomever ultimately is elected president — need to have their feet held to the fire on this issue.

“I’d remind all the presidential candidates of the federal government’s promise to construct a long-term storage facility for the legacy weapons materials being stored in South Carolina,” Duncan was quoted as saying in a recent Greenville News report. “I suspect many South Carolina voters, including myself, will expect to hear the presidential candidates’ solution to this problem during their next visit” to South Carolina.

This is a significant national security issue. For too long nuclear waste has been stored in a hodgepodge of 131 sites in 39 states where, although generally safe, it is more vulnerable to accident or sabotage than it would be in a secure, central repository that is specifically designed for the purpose and heavily guarded. This is not an issue that can be continually pushed off for some future generation to decide.

The presidential candidates owe South Carolinans an answer about where this waste will be stored. More importantly, the nation needs Congress and the White House — whoever occupies it — to finally move forward on Yucca Mountain.