June 30, 2012
By Eric Connor
From the Greenville News (SC)
In America’s capital, a new political realm has emerged in breaking the decades-old stalemate over solving the country’s nuclear waste dilemma — but it’s an impermanent territory that elected leaders in South Carolina, unified in their embrace of nuclear power, say they will not venture into.
Instead, they’ve placed their chips — all in — on a conviction that for 25 years has proved futile.
Sooner than later, they say, an abandoned, multibillion-dollar government project in a desert Nevada mountain must resurrect to become more than the political and geological wasteland that it is.
“I’m not one of those who believes Yucca Mountain is off the table,” U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan, a Republican whose congressional district is book-ended by the Oconee Nuclear Station and Savannah River Site, said in an interview. “Under the current administration, it might be, but I personally believe that Yucca Mountain is alive and well.”
The freshman congressman is far from alone in South Carolina, as colleagues on both sides of the aisle have called for Yucca Mountain’s rebirth.
However, the pivot to “interim storage” of spent reactor fuel stockpiling at reactors across the country like Oconee Nuclear Station is one that has gained traction in the U.S. Senate, following a pace-setting Blue Ribbon Commission report issued earlier this year.
The commission was formed by President Barack Obama two years ago upon his decision, in unison with powerful Democratic U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, to cut off funding for Yucca Mountain as a permanent commercial waste repository.
The report, which intentionally didn’t address what would be suitable permanent disposal sites, spells out a plan to create new, “consolidated” storage facilities for spent fuel whose radioactivity will live for hundreds of centuries.
Thousands of tons of radioactive spent fuel, much of it currently stored in deep pools of water near each of the nation’s active and decommissioned nuclear reactors, would be held above ground in concrete-encased steel containers until a final resting place promised for decades is up and running.
“Temporary” in nuclear storage terms is measured in a time line spanning more than a hundred years.
Inertia has been the standard.
“It would be a tragedy for some crisis to develop and us rush into it and probably solve it in the wrong way,” said former Democratic South Carolina Gov. Dick Riley, who was once appointed by President Jimmy Carter to try to solve the country’s nuclear waste problem.
“It’s better than nothing, I guess, but it’s certainly not the way we ought to be solving the problem,” Riley said. “Unfortunately, difficult decisions are not easily made in today’s political world. That’s unfortunate. This is a clear need for the country.”
Savannah River option
South Carolina’s legacy as the country’s nuclear dumping ground, combined with its embrace of nuclear power and research, inevitably brings questions of waste storage back to one place.
“There is concern that some entity might put forth Savannah River Site for consolidated storage,” said Tom Clements, nonproliferation policy director for the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability. “The question we have here in South Carolina is, ‘Are we going to allow a small number of contractors in a community to be the one that speaks to give the OK?’”
SRS, originally born to produce material for the nation’s nuclear arsenal, now manages the radioactive waste and is committed to environmental cleanup and new research. Officials there said the facility hasn’t been formally proposed as an interim site.
Bill Taylor, an SRS spokesman, said that “there’s always studies, but we’ve not really heard a final determination as to how that will go.”
Yet, just as there exists bipartisan support in South Carolina for nuclear energy — such as new reactors and research for reprocessing fuel at SRS — so too is there bipartisan opposition against the state hosting consolidated storage.
“South Carolina is a great location for many aspects of the nuclear industry, but storing waste long-term is not a viable option at the Savannah River Site or elsewhere in the state,” said longtime Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, who supports Yucca Mountain as a permanent disposal site and views South Carolina as “the hub of the nuclear renaissance in the United States.”
Upstate Republican U.S. Sens. Jim DeMint and Lindsey Graham were unavailable this week to be interviewed for this story.
Spokesmen for both Graham and DeMint pointed to legislation introduced by them that would force action on opening the $12 billion Yucca Mountain repository, or in the alternative, refund billions of dollars paid by ratepayers into a nuclear waste fund dedicated to the repository.
In recent weeks, a collection of federal appeals judges, in scathing opinions, have forced the government’s hand following lawsuits by power companies and nuclear watchdog groups.
Birth of Yucca solution
In 1982, Congress set up the Nuclear Waste Fund that customers of nuclear power would pay into via their monthly bills, a fund that today stands at more than $27 billion with $750 million more coming in each year.
In exchange, the government promised that by 1998 it would begin disposing of commercial spent nuclear fuel in Yucca Mountain, which when the fund was set up was chosen among three proposed sites.
The selection of Yucca Mountain at a time when Nevada lacked political clout is derisively known in the state as the “Screw Nevada Bill.”
With the 1998 deadline now long passed, courts have awarded utilities billions of dollars in damages.
Recently, a U.S. District of Columbia Court of Appeals panel ruled that the energy secretary must explain within six months his reasoning for continuing to charge the fee, which for Duke Energy customers amounts to $5.85 per year.
The government has used the fund, originally meant to be separate, as an accounting tool to weigh against the federal budget deficit.
In a recent Senate hearing on nuclear waste disposal, lawmakers latched onto the idea of establishing consolidated sites with the consent of willing states.
A prominent University of California-Berkeley nuclear engineering professor told the committee that interim storage is needed to alleviate the danger of spent fuel accumulating at reactors.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, a member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said in the hearing that the government should move forward with consolidated sites and “argue about Yucca Mountain along the way.”
South Carolina along with Washington state have taken legal action to compel the government to open the Nevada site.
“Whenever Congress is faced with making an unpopular political choice, the tendency is to delay,” said John Simpkins, a fellow of constitutional law at the Charleston School of Law.
“The only way that there’s likely to be a resolution of the problem,” Simpkins said, “will be courts forcing Congress to take action, and that gives Congress some cover, and they can say that they’re being ordered to do something by the courts. And so it goes – on and on.”
A spokeswoman for Republican U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina said that moving toward interim storage is nothing more than a “quick fix” that leaves decision-making to the courts.
“It takes our country’s resources away from funding a national repository,” the spokeswoman, Caroline Delleney, said. “Based upon the inaction by the Senate and our president, the judicial system is currently our nation’s best hope for sensibly disposing of spent fuel.”
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley recently has said she will fight for federal grant money to fund the development of small modular reactors at SRS.
Haley didn’t address the issue of consolidated storage in South Carolina, but a spokesman said that the governor believes “on-site storage of nuclear materials was never supposed to be a long-term solution.”
“Gov. Haley has always been clear – Yucca has been bought and paid for, it’s time to start using it,” spokesman Rob Godfrey said.
Congress never passed a law dismissing the Yucca Mountain project.
A political upheaval could revive it, Duncan said.
“What I don’t want to see is commercial nuclear waste brought to Savannah River Site from other states,” Duncan said. “South Carolina has already done its part.”
“Why not continue to make sure we’ve got the right storage facilities at the nuclear power plants now – where they’ve undergone inspections, undergone upgrades where needed – and bide our time?” he said.
“Harry Reid isn’t always going to be in the Senate. President Obama isn’t always going to be in the White House. Politics will change again in Washington, D.C.”