Using Yucca Mountain in Nevada as a central repository for the byproducts of nuclear power generation in the United States is not a perfect solution to a complex problem, but it’s far better than the status quo. A recent Nuclear Regulatory Commission report found that Yucca Mountain meets government requirements for the safe storage of nuclear waste. That conclusion should end the decades-long debate on the suitability of the site, but it almost certainly won’t stop political opposition to the project. Congress should lay politics aside and move forward anyway.
For more than a quarter century, the government has been considering whether to use Yucca Mountain, about 100 miles from Las Vegas, as the country’s only long-term storage facility for waste from nuclear reactors. The plan is to collect the nuclear waste created by power plants and bury it underneath the mountain. The site was chosen because it is geologically inert; natural processes such as earthquakes are highly unlikely to will disturb any materials placed at the site, which scientists say will maintain its integrity for at least 300,000 years. The problem isn’t any lack of supporting research; it’s that Democrats have been loath to support the construction of the site. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, from Nevada, has consistently blocked funding for Yucca Mountain. Barack Obama vowed to kill the project as a candidate for office, and has opposed it as president — mainly to placate Nevada voters who oppose constructing a large repository in their state.
But there is a real cost to congressional inaction on Yucca Mountain. There are over 70 nuclear power plants in the United States, and currently each one is responsible for storing the waste it generates. While each of those sites is secured by guards and certified by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, none were designed to permanently hold radioactive materials. Instead, power plant operators were expecting to be able to send their waste to a central disposal facility by 1998. Every year that goes by, plants are forced to store more and more hazardous materials on site, putting communities near them at risk.
There are valid logistical concerns about Yucca Mountain, such whether waste can be safely transported to the site. But these obstacles can be addressed. While the Department of Energy does not currently transport waste generated by power plants, the government has a long track record of safely transporting hazardous substances for the military by rail, including materials used in the nuclear weapons program. There is no reason a similarly robust system can’t be adopted for civilian use.
The solution is for Congress to resume funding the Yucca Mountain project. Democrats should recognize that, whatever their qualms about the site, the current situation can’t continue indefinitely. Republicans, who have been historically much more willing to fund the project, should make it a priority if they take over the Senate in November. Allowing nuclear materials to build up at power plants is far more dangerous than burying them at Yucca Mountain.