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What's Holding Back the Nuclear Renaissance?

A compelling spokesperson, and a plan for Yucca Mountain.
Fortnightly Magazine - April 2006

of years of permanent protection the depository must provide.

Finding the Funds

Unfortunately, the Yucca Mountain project has been stymied by inadequate funding, poor management under several administrations, snafus over technology and record keeping, and the failure to include the participation of Nevada residents who are most affected by it. Blame is being doled out on all fronts. For Yucca Mountain to move ahead, the Congress, the President, and the industry must be willing to step back and take a fresh look at their strategies.

Yucca Mountain needs more money. Appropriated funding has been well short of what has been needed. So, Congress should increase funding and take steps to reduce the intense political pressure on the Energy Department. But the money needs to be managed better, and the department should recognize its own role in this regard.

One practical step would be for the administration and the Congress to establish a quasi-governmental agency, similar to the Tennessee Valley Authority, which is insulated from short-term partisan politics and can manage the Yucca Mountain depository more as a business than as a government program. This “Fedcorp,” which is an old idea whose time has come, could be structured with a board of directors appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. The board, in turn, could appoint a CEO who would be insulated from the politics of the moment.

Finding a Leader

More broadly, the utility industry needs to define and publicly articulate its role in U.S. energy policy over the next few decades, instead of allowing politicians and other outside parties to do so. Since nuclear power should be a major component of America’s energy future, the industry must wrest control of the issue.

To do so, the industry needs a strong and highly visible leader who can articulate in plain English a compelling plan for addressing the waste storage and license application challenges. There are many strong and capable candidates, but none has yet been willing to step up to this role and do what Iacocca did in the late 1970s—ask the Congress for a loan guarantee, and offer a vision of a leaner, more responsive, and more productive industry.

Such a leader should express a willingness to make changes in the Yucca Mountain project, including engaging Nevada residents and their representatives in a constructive discussion. For example, if the country asks the citizens of Nevada to host the storage of high-level nuclear waste, perhaps Nevada should receive compensation for doing so. Quasi-governmental agencies such as the TVA often are exempt from taxes but compensate the states in which they operate with annual payments in lieu of taxes. Payments from TVA are based on the amount of generation from each of its power plants; at Yucca Mountain, a similar formula might be based on the weight or volume of waste stored.

Nuclear waste is accumulating, and local plants can’t handle much more. Moreover, the nuclear construction industry, once presumed an endangered species, has an ambitious agenda to build more plants. For the agenda to become reality, the industry and its