Published Wednesday, October 16, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 4:38 pm
federal failure
World-Herald editorial: Nuke waste can’t wait

Among the ways the federal government has failed to do its job, this one could last for centuries.

Under federal law, the U.S. Department of Energy is supposed to develop a disposal facility to handle spent fuel from the nation’s 104 nuclear reactors. Under federal law, the Energy Department was supposed to begin collecting that material in 1998.

This is one area where there can be no doubt about use of the word: The feds have defaulted on their obligation.

As of today, the federal government has no viable program to manage the radioactive waste — stuff that, as World-Herald staff writer Joe Duggan recently reported, can remain potent for 10,000 years. This failure needs to be remedied, sooner rather than later.

The lack of a central repository for spent nuclear power plant fuel leaves it being stored at commercial nuclear facilities across the country. The government forecasts that the amount of this material will double by 2055.

While this is being done safely now, does the Department of Energy really believe that is a better solution than building the federal disposal facility that the law requires?

The government has spent more than $15 billion trying to find a suitable site. For years, the leading option has been Yucca Mountain in Nevada, which is located in a dry, remote spot not prone to earthquakes and near an area where atomic testing took place in the 1950s.

But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., opposes locating the facility in his state, and the Obama administration deliberately stalled the licensing process. Earlier this year, a federal appeals court said federal officials were “simply flouting the law” by not deciding whether to license the Yucca Mountain facility, which remains the subject of some environmental concerns.

Congress needs to provide the funds to make a final evaluation.

Beyond that, a bipartisan group of senators introduced legislation in June to restart the search for a suitable location, creating an independent Nuclear Waste Administration to manage nuclear waste. One of the bill’s sponsors, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., aptly described the current situation as “the dangerous, expensive absence of a comprehensive nuclear waste policy.”

Meanwhile, nuclear power plant owners and their customers have been paying billions of dollars to a federal fund to cover the costs of collecting, transporting and storing the waste. That includes customers of the Omaha and Nebraska Public Power Districts. Duggan reported that OPPD, operator of the nuclear plant at Fort Calhoun, has put more than $112 million into the fund; NPPD, with its nuclear plant at Brownville, has paid $181 million.

President Barack Obama, who has pledged to combat climate change and greenhouse gases, has lauded nuclear power as part of the clean energy mix. In his 2011 State of the Union address, he said, “Some folks want wind and solar. Others want nuclear, clean coal and natural gas. To meet this goal, we will need them all … .”

If he means what he said, the president also needs to follow the law and make sure a solution is found for safely disposing of the waste material.

The first commercial nuclear power plant in the United States began operation along the Ohio River, at Shippingport, Pa., under the federal government’s “Atoms for Peace” program. That was in 1957 — 56 years ago.

It shouldn’t take the federal government 9,944 more years to figure out what to do with the waste material these plants produce.

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