Having worked 13 years at a nuclear power plant before transitioning to magazine editor, I have been a nuclear energy proponent for many years. I’ve been pleased and excited about what seemed like–for a while, at least–the rebirth of the industry in the United States and around the world. Nuclear energy has proven to be an efficient and clean generating source for baseload power, and the past 30 years have shown that it is a safe and economically feasible generating technology. I’m afraid, however, that its many attributes are overshadowed by recent decisions in Washington, D.C., mainly the decision to erase Yucca Mountain’s funding.
Since President Barack Obama released his proposed budget draft in February, it has become clear that the government will spend little time, if any, and no more money on the proposed site. This comes after spending 20-plus years and billions of dollars trying to determine if Yucca Mountain is fit to house the nation’s spent nuclear fuel. Unfortunately, the Obama administration did not pull funding because it thinks the study was sufficient to prove scientifically that Yucca Mountain is a suitable site; it’s still unclear why the administration decided Yucca Mountain is a no-go.
The president and Energy Secretary Steven Chu said only that Yucca Mountain is an unsuitable site and the government should consider “other options.” They’ve yet to reveal those other options. I think that for the next several years the other option will be the same option the 104 nuclear generating units have had all along: Store spent fuel on site.
While I do not believe spent fuel stored on site is dangerous and puts the public at risk, I believe the federal government has a contractual duty to provide commercial nuclear power plant owners with a long-term repository. I also believe the scientific evidence uncovered during 20 years of studying Yucca Mountain is sufficient to declare it a safe, suitable site for spent fuel storage. In addition, I don’t believe a solution to managing spent nuclear fuel is necessary before the next-generation nuclear fleet can be built in the United States. But many people do, and that’s what makes the administration’s decision to pull Yucca Mountain funding without providing an alternative so disappointing.
I’ve heard multiple times from various industry experts that if a U.S. nuclear renaissance were to occur, a central spent fuel storage repository must be established. I agree.
Recently I heard former Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham speak about energy challenges our nation and the world will face in the next 20 years, including trying to meet growing demand for electricity. He said the United States must make tough decisions about energy supply, and he listed his solutions. First is to expand the domestic nuclear power sector. He also said that he has seen in the past few weeks a movement away from nuclear power on Capitol Hill. Abraham called leaving spent fuel scattered at plant sites across the nation “undesirable.” If the government won’t move toward a central repository, he said, it should rethink the early-1970s policy that prevents reprocessing.
“We are the only modern country in the world with nuclear power plants that does not allow reprocessing,” he said.
While Abraham’s remarks make sense to me, I have to remind myself that during his tenure as energy secretary from 2001 to 2005, he did little to move the nation closer to a spent fuel solution.
Because limited support for Yucca Mountain remains on Capitol Hill, I hope the “other options” will be revealed soon and the nuclear renaissance becomes reality.
You may read more about Yucca Mountain and the nuclear industry in the generation section of this issue.
Teresa Hansen, editor in chief