NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

No Confidence in Nuclear Energy

March 16, 2012

After a lengthy legal and political battle, it appears that the Obama administration is likely to win the battle regarding the Yucca Mountain repository for spent nuclear fuel (SNF).  During the 2008 campaign, then-Senator Obama promised that the enormous government project would be shut down.  The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has since allowed Yucca Mountain's application as a viable deposit site to be withdrawn, signaling President Obama's victory, say Jack Spencer and Cornelius Milmoe of the Heritage Foundation.

However, the move affects the nuclear industry far beyond the retirement of a single repository, as the decision will be extensive in undermining confidence in nuclear power for years to come.

  • The NRC has ignored the requirements of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which mandated the existence of a national repository program and specified its location at Yucca Mountain.
  • By sidelining Yucca Mountain, the NRC has eliminated a viable site to store SNF, essentially broadcasting a no-confidence message in the future of nuclear power.
  • The decision has allowed nuclear reactors to temporarily store their SNF onsite until a new repository can be made available, yet this leaves reactors open to litigation concerns regarding the waste.
  • It undermines investor confidence in nuclear power, as concerns over possible litigation and uncertainty regarding waste disposal crowd out the profitability of the plants.
  • The decision encourages the continuance of the status quo by charging no party involved with creating an eventual solution.

By consciously choosing to ignore the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, the NRC has essentially defied an explicit mandate of Congress.  However, Congress can reassert itself and repair the damage of this NRC decision by taking two courses of action:

  • Force the NRC to make a final decision on Yucca Mountain instead of putting the issue off indefinitely in violation of the three-year cap imposed by the Nuclear Waste Policy Act.
  • Reaffirm that the national government is responsible for the management of SNF, thereby placing the onus of action on a specific party for future progress.

By seeking to correct the mistakes of the NRC and reaffirming its dominance over the issue, Congress can pave the way for future investment in nuclear energy.

Source: Jack Spencer and Cornelius Milmoe, "Obama Administration: No Confidence in Nuclear Energy," Heritage Foundation, March 5, 2012.

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