Panel: Nation Needs New Nuclear Waste Site, Pronto

Jul 29, 2011

As sagas go, it rivals the Star Wars epics: "Yucca Mountain: The Quest for a Nuclear Waste Dump" premiered in 1978, when the U.S. government added the Nevada site to its list of potential "permanent repositories." Since then, it's been a story of political intrigue, desert outposts, giant machines and doctored science.

Chosen in 1987 as the "winner" of the competition, the Yucca Mountain site was already half-built when President Barack Obama canceled the long-controversial project last year.

Now comes the sequel: Yucca Mountain Two.

A special blue ribbon commission on nuclear waste Friday acknowledged that Yucca Mountain was a horribly expensive mistake. The panel, set up last year by the U.S. Department of Energy, said let's not do that again. But the country desperately needs a place to put thousands of tons of highly radioactive nuclear waste from America's 104 nuclear power plants, and from decades of building bombs. So let's try again.

The Yucca Mountain project saw geologists and environmentalists sparring over how water-tight and earthquake-proof the underground tunnels at Yucca Mountain would be. But the real killer of Yucca Mountain was opposition from powerful politicians like Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat from Nevada. Local people near Yucca Mountain were all for the project: jobs, roads, money — the usual manna from big government projects. However, the rest of Nevada, led by Reid, said they didn't want to turn Nevada into the country's nuke dump.

Besides scientists, the new commission is thick with present and former politicians, and even includes Gen. Brent Scowcroft, a Washington insider for decades. The report emphasizes that any new site for a repository requires up-front support from the local community. The authors acknowledge that this won't move quickly. So they're calling for one or more interim, "temporary" sites where nuclear waste would be stored above-ground in casks for, say, 50 years or so. That's how long it might take to find and dig another permanent underground site.

The interim site is necessary, they say, because nuclear power plants are overflowing with waste right now, much of it in spent fuel pools like the ones at Fukushima that may have contributed to radioactive releases after the earthquake and tsunami there. And those power plants are charging rate-payers and taxpayers billions of dollars in storage fees.

So if nuclear politics is your thing — or, say, sedimentary hydrogeology — grab a seat. The sequel could be as thrilling as the original.

Christopher Joyce is a science correspondent for NPR.

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