James T. Brett is the president and CEO of The New England Council
In 1987 Congress designated Yucca Mountain, a ridgeline of volcanic material in the Nevada desert, as the site of the nation’s nuclear waste depository. Today, 23 years later, the fund established to pay for this site has collected more than $17 billion, miles-long tunnels have been excavated and millions have been spent on testing.
Yet the site has yet to take a single ounce of nuclear waste, and the federal government hopes to abandon the project altogether, establishing a blue ribbon commission to consider options for our nuclear future.
The New England Council has long supported Yucca Mountain as the only sensible location for the permanent disposal of high-level radioactive waste. New England is home to three closed nuclear power plants in Rowe; Haddam Neck, Conn.; and Wiscasset, Maine. While these facilities provided New Englanders with safe, reliable and affordable power for many years, they are now storing spent nuclear fuel that the federal government agreed to take possession of more than 10 years ago.
The federal government has already spent more than $10 billion to develop the Yucca Mountain site, including extensive testing for safety and effectiveness. It simply does not make sense to scrap this work and return to the drawing board, especially when the need for permanent long-term storage of nuclear waste is so urgent.
A federal depository isn’t just sensible policy – it’s the law. Under the Nuclear Waste Protection Act (NWPA), the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) was to begin collecting and disposing of nuclear waste by Jan. 31, 1998. Twelve years later, DOE has yet to collect any nuclear waste, resulting in dozens of lawsuits.
More delays in determining where to store the nation’s nuclear waste will only cost ratepayers and utilities more money. Congress established a Nuclear Waste Fund to pay for the federal depository at Yucca Mountain. Nuclear energy providers pay into the fund by collecting a fee from their ratepayers who benefit from the electricity generated by nuclear power.
The New England states alone have contributed more than $870 million to the fund and will continue to pay until the federal government decides where to store nuclear waste. This is simply unacceptable in a time when our energy costs are already so high and families and businesses are struggling to make ends meet in the midst of an economic recession.
Safety concerns should of course be carefully considered in determining where to store potentially hazardous waste. Fortunately, Yucca Mountain has been described as one of the most studied pieces of geography in the world.
President Barack Obama has expressed a commitment to expanding our nation’s nuclear capabilities, noting that nuclear energy is reliable, affordable and emission-free. Here in New England, we already get more than a quarter of our power from nuclear energy – above the national average. However, without a permanent repository for nuclear waste, it is likely that state regulators will be hesitant to approve the construction of new nuclear units.
At the same time, utilities may be hesitant to build if they face the cost of storing the spent fuel themselves. Rising energy costs and our dependence on foreign oil have been two of the biggest challenges facing this nation. Nuclear energy is one solution to those problems, but we cannot move forward without a long-term plan for storing nuclear waste.
Yucca Mountain is the best site to store our nuclear waste. We cannot afford NOT to move ahead with this project.