In his inaugural address on January 21, 2009, President Barack Obama promised that “we’ll restore science to its rightful place.” Mark that down as a broken promise, as far as a key element of America’s nuclear energy future is concerned.
Obama’s remark on science was a swipe at his predecessor, George W. Bush, whose administration was frequently criticized, often with good reason, for allowing ideology to trump science on subjects as varied as stem cell research, the morning-after birth control pill and the environment.
In contrast, Obama’s most prominent move to shelve a major scientific project — The Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository — has been driven not by ideology but by a toxic combination of Nimbyism (from “not in my backyard”), electoral politics and high-handed leadership of America’s Nuclear Regulatory Commission. That combination led to the closure of a project that, over its long gestation period, involved more than 2,500 scientists and has so far cost $15 billion.
Power-generation and nuclear waste are not usually subjects of great public interest but they made headlines and sparked renewed debate in the wake of last March’s nuclear accident in Japan, where spent fuel rods (nuclear waste) posed a greater radiation threat than the core of the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Those rods were stored in pools of constantly circulating water — the system used at most U.S. nuclear plants — and dangerously overheated when an earthquake interrupted power supply to the pools.
Over the past few weeks, the steadily increasing waste from more than 100 nuclear reactors and the repository once meant to hold most of it deep underground, have been the subject of a string of reports and congressional hearings. They shed light not only on the need for a decision on what best to do with the waste but also on the fact that science on this issue has not been restored to the “rightful place” Obama promised in his eloquent inaugural speech.