Obama, politics and nuclear waste
-Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own-
The project involved more than 2,500 scientists. It cost $ 10.5 billion between 1983 and 2009 and it included one of the most bizarre scientific tasks of all time: evaluate whether nuclear waste stored deep inside a Nevada desert mountain would be safe a million years into the future.
That was the safety standard set in September, 2008, by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a condition for allowing nuclear waste to be stored deep in the belly of the Yucca Mountain, 95 miles (155 km) from Las Vegas, long the subject of political debate and a fine example of nimbyism (not in my backyard).
The vastly complex computer models and simulations experts launched to figure out whether Yucca Mountain would be a safe environment in the year 1,000,000 and beyond ended before there was a scientific conclusion.
President Barack Obama has pulled the plug on the entire Yucca Mountain enterprise, million-year safety study and all, by writing it out of his financial year 2011 budget, which begins in October.
Yucca Mountain’s death by budgetary axe defies logic. It coincides with Obama’s stated support for expanding nuclear power. More reactors mean more waste, now piling up above-ground at sites scattered around the country.
In February, Obama announced $8.3 billion in government loan guarantees for two nuclear reactors in Georgia. They would be the first new plants since the 1979 nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, an accident that caused no casualties but became a rallying symbol for the anti-nuclear movement.
Citizens Against Government Waste, a Washington watchdog group, described abandoning Yucca Mountain without figuring out what to do, long-term, with the toxic nuclear waste produced by new (and existing) reactors as “patently illogical,” a “politicized and short-sighted decision.”
The group is right.
This is a matter of politics trumping science and it involves a president who pledged, in his inaugural address, to “restore science to its rightful place” from where, in the eyes of many Obama partisans, it had been dislodged by the administration of George W. Bush, routinely accused (and often with good reason) of “politicizing science.”
Yucca Mountain, which rises 4,950 feet (1,510 metres) from the Mojave desert, on the edge of a nuclear test site, was meant to be the central burying ground for radioactive waste now stored at 121 sites in 39 states, some 150 million pounds (68 million kg) of toxic stuff and more piling up. The material is initially submerged in pools of water and then sealed in steel and concrete casks.
The idea of shipping them all to a remote site in the desert has had wide appeal – except for most people in Nevada, where Senator Harry Reid, now the leader of the Democratic majority in the Senate, has been waging a relentless campaign against using Yucca.
“I am proud that after two decades of fighting the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump, the project is finally being terminated,” Reid writes on his website. “(It) is simply not a safe or secure site to store nuclear waste.”
That’s his opinion. There’s no shortage of scientists who disagree.
AN INSULT TO INTELLIGENCE?
During Nevada stops in his campaign for the presidency, Obama came out strongly against Yucca Mountain, a position that helped him beat his Republican rival John McCain and win the hotly-contested state’s five electoral votes.
McCain has called closing the mountain while encouraging new plants “an insult to intelligence.”
Reid is running for re-election in November and he will no doubt hold up the decision on Yucca Mountain as a triumph of his persistence. His poll numbers have not been good recently and it remains to be seen whether Yucca will lift them. Some Republicans are convinced that Obama’s nuclear waste decision was taken purely for the benefit of Reid.
In an op-ed in the Washington Times late in February, Mark Sanford, the Republican governor of South Carolina, home to a nuclear complex holding 36 million gallons of liquid radioactive waste, said that the Obama administration was “walking away from a $10 billion investment and starting all over because of one man’s race for office in Nevada.”
Starting all over?
That process is meant to be initiated by a 15-member Blue Ribbon Commission, a device not infrequently used in Washington to give the appearance of action while actually delaying it. As Citizens Against Government Waste put it: “The administration is kicking the nuclear can down the road, into the next administration and onto the shoulders of future taxpayers.”
The commission, heavy on Washington insiders and relatively light on scientists, has two years “to provide recommendations for developing a safe, long-term solution to managing the nation’s used nuclear fuel and nuclear waste.” Looking for an alternative site to Yucca Mountain, another deep-underground storage facility, apparently is not part of the commission’s brief.
So then what? Start from scratch? Perhaps a return to the dawn of the nuclear age? The options under discussion then included burying radioactive material in the ocean floor, placing it in polar ice sheets — and even blasting it into space.
Reuters file photo shows the remote Nevada site of Yucca Mountain in 2002. REUTERS/STR New
(You can contact the author at Debusmann@Reuters)