It might seem a stretch to create a link between consumers’ electric bills and how this nation deals with nuclear waste, but the connection points out the federal government’s shameful decades-long inaction on the issue.
The U.S. Department of Energy last week notified utilities that it no longer would collect a surcharge on electric bills. The charge — one-quarter of a penny for each kilowatt of electricity — had been in place since 1983 and had collected about $43 billion — all of it earmarked for repositories designed to store waste generated by the nation’s 100 nuclear reactors. But when plans for such destination sites were scuttled and a federal court ruled that the government must stop collecting the fee if it wasn’t going to use the money, officials got right on that. Well, about six months later they got right on that.
Which leaves us with this: After three decades and after spending about $12 billion planning a now-defunct repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, the federal government has a trust fund of $31 billion, a litany of broken promises, and no plan for dealing with the waste. “It is irresponsible on the government’s part to not move forward on a program that has already been paid for,” said Marvin Fertel, president of the Nuclear Energy Institute, a Washington trade group that filed suit against the fees.
Such irresponsibility has been a long-term trait of the federal government when it comes to nuclear waste, as demonstrated by the situation at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. Hanford, located near Richland, played a key role in the development of the atomic bomb during World War II and in the buildup of the nation’s nuclear weapons arsenal over the decades that followed, but now it is best known as the nation’s largest nuclear waste site. The long-
promised cleanup at Hanford, about 200 miles upstream from Vancouver along the Columbia River, has languished through overruns of cost and time with precious little progress. There have been storage tanks leaking waste, saber rattling by state officials, and pleas from members of Congress, yet the feds have demonstrated a callous disregard for the dangers involved or the promises they have made.
Therefore, it comes as little surprise that the collection of a surcharge on electric bills has been accompanied by virtually no follow-up from a series of presidential administrations. And yet the problem remains.
Nuclear reactors across the nation now are sitting upon roughly 70,000 metric tons of highly radioactive spent fuel. As the Los Angeles Times reported: “Under guard by SWAT teams with machine guns, the spent fuel is slowly decaying in deep pools of cooling water and in outdoor concrete casks from the California shores of the Pacific Ocean to the banks of the James River in Virginia. The waste is expensive to store and often cited as a public safety risk. Many experts worry that the longer it sits around, the less motivation the government will have to ever deal with it.”
Such concerns are one of the things that has stalled the development of nuclear energy in this country. President Barack Obama had pledged to expand nuclear power production in an effort to reduce reliance upon fossil fuels, and his administration has approved loan guarantees for a $14 billion plant in Georgia — the first nuclear plant built in the U.S. in more than 30 years. It is a good idea, and one that could greatly enhance the country’s energy production. But until the federal government lives up to its promises regarding nuclear waste, any move toward nuclear production is irresponsible.