Wednesday, June 20, 2012

To Rep. Paulsen (R-MN) and Rep. Wilson (R-SC): Good Idea, But Not Going To Work.

The House of Representatives is considering an omnibus energy bill today. Among the proposed amendments, via Politico's Morning Energy, is one co-sponsored by Representatives Paulsen and Wilson that would force President Obama to certify Yucca Mountain as the U.S.'s proposed deep geological storage site for nuclear waste. If the President chose not to make that certification within 30 days, the U.S. government would then be forced to refund the balance of the Nuclear Waste Fund, collected from ratepayers over the years in anticipation of the use of Yucca. According to the Huffington Post, the amount of cash in the Fund stood at some $24 billion last May. By law, it can only  be used to fund a permanent storage site, so the money has just been sitting there and piling up for years while the site in Yucca keeps... not getting built and used.

Let's set aside for a second the fact that this amendment has yet to make it onto H.R. 4480, and even if the omnibus bill somehow makes it through the Senate, it will likely face a presidential veto. Never mind that for a moment. Let's just focus on the amendment.

First of all, the amendment represents a commendable effort by Reps. Paulsen and Wilson to stop what's basically a pointless federal tax levied on nuclear utilities throughout the U.S. Those utilities pass the cost on to ratepayers and the government sucks out money that legally cannot be used for any purpose but the (unlikely to ever happen) Yucca Mountain facility construction. Wilson and Paulsen's amendment would force the government to piss or get off the pot, and most likely, that money would be refunded to ratepayers and the utilities in their areas.

However, Yucca Mountain will never be the U.S.'s deep geological repository as long as Harry Reid (D-NV) is Senate Majority Leader, or probably if he holds any power within the Senate. Reid hates the idea of the dump, which is in his state and is tremendously unpopular there, and has focused on killing it for many years. Besides the political obstacles, there are practical issues too: Yucca Mountain is in the middle of the desert and difficult to access, and should the dump go into operation, nuclear waste stored all over the country would have to be transported thousands of miles to Yucca by truck. There's no other way to move the "dry casks", since they weigh a couple of tons apiece, and there's around 70,000 pounds of waste that would still need to be casked and moved. The casks are tested rigorously, surviving drops, fire, train crashes, etc. without incident, but there are always complaints about the testing process and whether it's comprehensive enough. Moving the waste via highway would also see it passing through major cities, and although the casks do not emit a significant amount of radiation at rest, a crash and opened cask would be a total disaster.

Paulsen and Wilson have the right idea, but there are too many practical problems with their plan. To offset these, I would offer an amendment (were the world mine) repurposing the Nuclear Waste Fund money into construction of regional storage facilities, minimizing the distance that casks would have to travel and scattering them around the country. That, combined with the construction and use of nuclear reprocessing facilities, would drastically lower the gross amount of waste that needs to be geologically disposed of. Yucca Mountain could serve as a repository for this much smaller (but more radioactive) amount of waste, which is a compromise that Harry Reid might even accept. Put all that together and we're on the way to a closed nuclear fuel cycle (where no new U-235 needs to be introduced), which will be helpful when the world starts to run short of uranium.

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