When it comes to nuclear energy, President Barack Obama is speaking out of both sides of his mouth. As we pointed out in a Feb. 18 editorial, Obama promotes nuclear energy (much to the chagrin of many liberals) while turning his back on a viable way to dispose of the industry’s high-level radioactive waste.
On Monday, Gov. Chris Gregoire and state Attorney General Rob McKenna announced that they have had enough of the double talk. The state will intervene in the federal government’s decision to withdraw its license application for the Yucca Mountain radioactive waste storage facility in Nevada. Kudos to the Democratic governor and the Republican attorney general for opposing the Obama administration’s decision to abandon a perfectly sensible waste disposal solution, which was the product of years of scientific research and planning. Energy Secretary Steven Chu is trying to make sure Obama’s campaign promise to close Yucca Mountain is kept. Although fortified by solid science declaring Yucca Mountain as the best place to store nuclear waste, the proposal is heavily opposed by many Nevadans. And, as is often the case, there’s a political angle here. Killing the proposal — or at least delaying it for several months — could be seen as a boost to the re-election efforts of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
Though more than 900 miles away, the geologic waste repository in the Nevada desert is more closely tied to this corner of America than some Northwesterners might realize. At the Hanford nuclear reservation near the Tri Cities, spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste from the long-overdue environmental cleanup is intended to be shipped to Yucca Mountain. But what understandably alarms many agency officials in this state are two little words found on the feds’ motion to withdraw the license application for Yucca Mountain: “with prejudice.” That means permanently, never to be considered again. Such obdurate immutability would create another kind of contemptible waste: the many years and millions of dollars that were devoted to defining Yucca Mountain as an appropriate vault for nuclear waste.
There are other Northwest angles to this story. Last Friday, a federal court awarded Energy Northwest of Richland almost $57 million in damages from the federal government for breach of contract involving the Yucca Mountain facility. Energy Northwest is a consortium of 28 utilities, including Clark Public Utilities. If that court order stands, Energy Northwest will direct the money toward building a storage area for used fuel at the Columbia Generating Station, the Northwest’s only nuclear power plant.
Also last week, three civic leaders in the Tri-Cities sued the Energy Department, bolstering their argument with the claim that the decision to inter the Yucca Mountain proposal violates the Nuclear Waste Policy Act.
Obama is moving in the right direction, promoting development of nuclear power plants, but he won’t make meaningful progress until he recognizes Yucca Mountain as the necessary solution for waste disposal. Americans don’t want radioactive waste stored haphazardly all over the country. And Northwesterners don’t want the same federal government that created Hanford nuclear reservation in the 1940s to turn its back on cleaning up the place. That cleanup already is projected to cost several billion dollars.
Harry Reid might cringe at the thought of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, but the rest of Americans need it. President Obama should push for both crucial aspects of nuclear energy: kick-starting the construction of power plants and activating plans for responsible storage of radioactive waste.