Maine Yankee, the nuclear power plant in Wiscasset that stopped generating power in 1996, has had success in a string of recent court rulings that have ordered the federal government to pay the plant’s owners nearly $120 million to store 550 metric tons of spent uranium on site.
Maine’s electric ratepayers will benefit from the federal payout since the funds will pay for energy efficiency, conservation measures and electric rate reductions. But there’s little reason to celebrate.
The $120 million in settlement funds are meant to cover the costs of storing spent fuel rods at the decommissioned Maine Yankee site between 1998 and 2008.
In other words, the government is now paying up for its outright failure to live up to a federal law dating back three decades and provide a site for the safe storage of the more than 65,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel that have built up at 75 reactor sites across the country.
Over the course of those three decades, the federal government has wasted billions of dollars and lots of time. Now, the course the Obama administration recommends would waste even more time and money.
The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 required the U.S. Department of Energy to develop and operate a permanent geologic repository for the spent nuclear waste that had accumulated at the nation’s nuclear reactors. The agency signed contracts with all nuclear plant owners pledging to receive their spent fuel at a facility that would open by Jan. 31, 1998.
After a first phase of research, Congress in 1987 narrowed down the list of potential sites to one, Yucca Mountain in Nevada, about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas. Fifteen years later, after further research certified Yucca Mountain met criteria that had become more stringent through the years, President George W. Bush signed a law designating the desert formation surrounded by federal land as the nation’s official nuclear waste repository.
Today, however, the federal government has yet to remove any spent fuel from the Maine Yankee site. Storage costs amount to about $9 million per year. Meanwhile, Maine ratepayers have paid more than $300 million into the U.S.’s Nuclear Waste Fund with the expectation it would pay for the development of the Yucca Mountain repository.
Politics and legal action have held up plans to finish studying Yucca Mountain and develop the site. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada is vehemently opposed, meaning any action in the Senate to move forward with the Yucca plan is likely doomed.
So is President Barack Obama, whose administration unsuccessfully attempted to withdraw the application with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that sought approval for Yucca Mountain. Now, the commission faces a court order to continue evaluating Yucca Mountain, but it has limited funds — because neither Congress nor Obama are willing to allocate any — to carry out the order.
Instead of pursuing Yucca Mountain, the Obama administration tasked a Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future with crafting a new nuclear waste strategy.
That commission — which was not charged with proposing a specific repository site or determining Yucca Mountain’s suitability — in 2012 recommended “immediate efforts to commence development of at least one geologic disposal facility” along with the development of “one or more” interim storage facilities. In response, the Obama administration proposed a plan that would make an unnamed site available as a repository by 2048 and an interim site available by 2021.
Today, a bill pending in the Senate — which independent Maine Sen. Angus King has cosponsored — proposes much of what the Blue Ribbon Commission recommended: a consent-based site selection process for a new repository, an independent agency to oversee nuclear waste management, and a provision that allows the shorter-term construction of pilot storage facilities as long as the independent agency is also carrying out plans for a permanent repository. Republican Maine Sen. Susan Collins still favors the Yucca Mountain solution along with provisions in the Senate bill that would allow interim storage facilities that first accept waste from decommissioned plants like Maine Yankee.
We think the bill offers a path forward to break the long-standing stalemate that has held up progress on disposal of the nation’s nuclear waste.
But we also think the federal government should follow through on its original promise and appropriate funds to proceed with the development of the Yucca Mountain repository. The process that designated Yucca Mountain as the repository site should have been more open, and more should have been done to secure local support. But Nye County, which is home to Yucca Mountain, has sided with those in favor of using the mountain as a repository, claiming the project would benefit the area economically.
It’s long past time the federal government made good on a promise and stopped wasting money.