Abandoning Yucca Mountain Project
by Editorial Board
Once the long 2008 presidential campaign was over, we held out hope that the newly elected President Obama would eventually come to his senses and abandon a politically motivated campaign pledge to halt work on the nuclear waste repository near Nevada's Yucca Mountain. But it seems Obama has new political motivation for blocking the national repository -- the re-election of Harry Reid, the Democratic Senate Majority Leader from Nevada.
The Obama administration last week signaled to Nevada voters that it's serious about blocking the Yucca Mountain project. Administration officials asked that the government's permit application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission be withdrawn "with prejudice," meaning the application needed to complete the nuclear repository is off the table for good.
Washington state officials were among the first to push back. On Monday, Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna said the state will intervene in the courts to prevent the federal government from simply walking away from this project and its decades-old promise to take possession of the nation's nuclear waste. Only Aiden County, S.C., reacted quicker, filing a lawsuit late last week. South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford indicated that the state also may take legal action. We expect similar action will be taken by a number of other states where large quantities of radioactive waste awaits shipment to Yucca Mountain.
The administration's attempt to permanently abandon this project is irresponsible to the extreme. The careful research that identified the Nevada site as most suitable for the storage of the nation's nuclear waste stretches back almost 30 years. Billions have been spent to date on planning and construction work. Most irresponsible, though, is the administration's seeming indifference to the fact that there is no Plan B for the safe disposal of the estimated 70,000 tons of nuclear waste scattered around the country at 131 sites.
The federal government will remain contractually obligated to take possession of this waste, with or without the completion of the Yucca Mountain repository. The government agreed to begin taking possession of that nuclear waste by 1998. Commercial utilities agreed to pay for the repository and began collecting a fee from ratepayers to build a construction fund. Northwest ratepayers who receive nuclear power have paid about $290 million into that fund since 1984, according to Associated Press writer Shannon Dininny.
If the federal government abandons the Yucca Mountain project, as the Obama administration is seeking to do, taxpayers will be liable for billions of dollars in damages. Indeed, missing that 1998 deadline for taking possession of this nuclear waste already has cost taxpayers several hundred million dollars in damages. As recently as last week, a federal court awarded Energy Northwest nearly $57 million in damages. Energy Northwest is a public power consortium that includes the Columbia Generating Station in Richland, Wash., a commercial nuclear plant.
By some estimates, abandoning the Yucca Mountain repository could leave the federal government legally liable for up to $60 billion. It also would pretty much rule out the nuclear option that Obama has been touting of late as part of the nation's energy future. These very practical concerns ought to trump the political concerns behind the administration's latest and most alarming move to block completion of this nuclear repository.
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