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Face-Off: The Nuclear Non-Starter

Persistent economic and political issues continue to prevent the expansion of nuclear power.
Fortnightly Magazine - June 15 2003

the future. Economics will not favor this solution for many years."

Yucca Mountain Blues

Two issues perennially dominate the policy debate: oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and a permanent repository for spent nuclear fuel.

The Yucca Mountain debate recently cleared a critical hurdle-namely, in May and July 2002, the U.S. Congress officially approved the site for a national spent fuel repository, over the objections of the state of Nevada. This is the latest step in a process that began, depending on how you count it, in either 1954 or 1982. In any case, the nuclear waste disposal issue is a political football that has been bouncing along for decades and has already cost more than $7 billion.

Unfortunately, congressional approval by no means signals the end of the game.

"Yucca Mountain has been offered as a site for waste disposal, but the NRC has yet to receive a formal application, let alone agree to license it for waste disposal," Lochbaum says. "Even if all schedules are met, it'll be 2010 or so before Yucca receives waste shipment number one."

Meeting that timeline, moreover, will require the Department of Energy (DOE) and the NRC to execute a series of license applications, reviews, and planning processes, any of which hold the potential to delay or scuttle the project.

"The schedule includes a lot of major assumptions about requirements and statutorily imposed deadlines that the government has not shown the ability to meet," says John O'Neill, a nuclear industry attorney with Shaw Pittman in Washington, D.C.

Additionally, the entire Yucca Mountain plan involves transporting spent fuel across thousands of miles of roadways and railways-effectively through millions of backyards. Irrespective of whether the plan poses any appreciable public-health risk, the potential NIMBY problem is staggering.

"The opposition is dormant, but it will grow very quickly," says Robert Kahn, a siting consultant based in Mercer Island, Wash. "You'll always have NIMBY opposition, but nuclear waste is in a unique category of unwanted land uses."

Kahn explains that the mass-media and instant communications technologies of the 21st century make NIMBY sentiment a particularly treacherous problem for siting any type of nuclear facility. "Because of the Internet, we have seen an exponential increase in the potency of NIMBY opposition," he says. "It allows opponents to share information and rhetoric faster than ever before."

Disputes like the recent one at Prairie Island in Minnesota illustrate how long-term storage issues could prevent the industry's expansion. The plant's owner, Xcel Energy, reached agreement in mid-May with the state legislature and the local tribal authority to expand its onsite dry-cask storage capacity, but only after a drawn-out battle that might conceivably have forced the plant to shut down.

To the degree Yucca Mountain is delayed, the industry's growth will be constrained-if for no other reason than state regulators' reluctance to approve new nuclear plants without certain knowledge that a national repository will be made available to store spent fuel.

"The courts have said that the deadlines mean something, and damages will accrue while the industry is waiting," O'Neill says. "The