A proposed national budget from the White House of Donald Trump seeks to greenlight the on-again, off-again nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada.
The move, if approved by Congress, would overturn the policy of the Obama Administration, which froze the Yucca Mountain project in 2009 over concerns that it was unfit to store radioactive waste, and subsequently zeroed out its budget over several years.
Trump campaigned on a populist “America First Energy Plan” that focuses on dismantling environmental regulation to bring back coal jobs, encouraging fracking, and undoing US commitments to the Paris Climate accord, but makes no mention of nuclear power.
If the administration is serious about reopening Yucca Mountain, Trump’s Department of Energy – and its secretary, Rick Perry, who was famously unaware that his department sets US nuclear waste policy until shortly before his confirmation hearing this month – will be revisiting a decades old scientific and political knot that more qualified presidencies have failed to untangle.
In 1982, Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which obligated the federal government to start taking control of spent fuel by 1998. Now, nearly two decades later, virtually none of the waste has left any of the 121 facilities throughout the country where it is currently stored in a mix of pools and dry casks.
After $98 billion worth of work, the Yucca Mountain site was found to be a scientifically dicey for storing some 130 million metric tons of radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel from America’s 99 operating nuclear reactors. The site would be vulnerable to earthquakes and other natural forces that no one can predict, and its location poses threats to drinking water pumped to Los Angeles.
And there is argument over how long Yucca should be required to safely store nuclear waste. Under the Bush administration, which itself tried to revive Yucca, a federal judge ruled the site must safely store waste for a million years, overturning the White House’s assertion that 10,000 years was long enough.
In 2009, Obama’s energy secretary, the Nobel prize-winning physicist Steven Chu, pulled the plug on Yucca. He opted instead for nuclear plants to hold on to their waste until a better repository could be developed. None have since materialized.
In the interim, 70,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel alone has piled up around the country and the government has been forced to pay plant operators hundreds of millions of dollars each year for breach of contract, money operators are not required to – and in many cases don’t – spend on storage.
A Trump administration statement released with its budget request of $120 million toward Yucca seems to acknowledge that difficulty. Citing the “federal government’s obligations to address nuclear waste” and “reduce taxpayer burden” by investing not only in Yucca, the administration wants to invest in storage at nuclear power plants as well.
New Energy Secretary Perry learned by accident that he would be inheriting decisions on nuclear waste. In another indication of the incompetence marring Trump’s cabinet picks more generally, Perry reportedly accepted his nomination to the post on the assumption that it would provide a beachhead for deregulating the energy sector and boosting oil and gas.
Describing the nuclear surprise as a “learning curve,” Perry, who unlike his predecessors holds no advanced scientific degrees, now vows to work closely with Congress’s energy committee to solve nuclear waste storage issues.
Fortunately, others in the Energy Department have progressed in talks on creating interim storage facilities, something the Trump budget implies it would support.
To advance this, the Energy Department last summer held a number of discussions in US cities that outlined both interim storage options, and, for the first time, a scheme of public participation in giving them the okay.
The Department is examining options to store nuclear waste in centralized facilities for between 20 to 100 years until a more suitable alternative to Yucca Mountain can be built.
The idea has plenty of critics. Interim storage sites, they say, would move the problem from one person’s backyard to another, creating more contaminated site that would require future cleanup. Despite that, the Energy Department expects that some communities will step up and take on that burden anyway, but how or if they would be compensated is still unclear.
Oddly, the one area in which Perry does have some experience relevant to his new job is in repositories. While governor of Texas, he advocated for the construction of a nuclear waste repository in his home state, suggesting he might be better a resisting the not-in-my-back-yard arguments that some critics of interim storage facilities advance.
But, according to Arjun Makhijani, a nuclear engineer and head of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, America’s plans for dealing with its radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel have not much advanced from where they stood in 1983, a year after the passage of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act.
Perhaps the good news is that the Trump administration isn’t any worse off than any administration that has come before it. But as the spent nuclear fuel stacks up, where to safely store it is as pressing as it was under Obama, George W Bush, and Bill Clinton, George Bush Sr. or Ronald Reagan. Trump’s unimpressive energy secretary can hardly be expected to succeed where others have not.