Ironically, NIMBY Results in Opposite Effect

Published November 1, 2009

The acronym NIMBY stands for “Not In My Back Yard.” It is a popular acronym used by federal, state, and local elected officials and members of the public when referring to nuclear waste.

The concept has been exploited for years by anti-nuclear activists to prevent construction of new nuclear power plants; prevent shipments of radioactive waste (including spent nuclear fuel) from leaving nuclear power plant sites and crossing state lines; prevent the construction and operation of low-level radioactive waste disposal facilities; and now prevent the nation’s only spent nuclear fuel repository, Yucca Mountain, from becoming operational.

NIMBY’s Ironic Result

Thanks to the perseverance of several anti-nuclear groups, the nuclear waste will stay right where they didn’t want it in the first place—in their back yards—and it looks like it will be there for an indefinite period of time. It also will increase in volume as older nuclear power plants receive extensions to their operating licenses, especially with nuclear power now being viewed as an integral component in reducing greenhouse gases.

Since passage of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 began the process of choosing and constructing a permanent site for spent nuclear fuel, anti-nuclear activists have stepped up their opposition to nuclear power and the Yucca Mountain storage facility in particular. A federal nuclear waste fund has accumulated more than $31 billion for the construction and operation of Yucca Mountain, but the facility is unlikely to open any time soon.

Only $9 billion of the fund has been invested in Yucca Mountain to date, leaving more than $22 billion for future use. The remaining $22 billion might now be used for other purposes, however, since funding for the Yucca Mountain project has been reduced, almost to the point of killing off the project.

Currently, our commercial nuclear power plants must store their ever-increasing amounts of spent nuclear fuel on-site for an indefinite period of time, with no prospect of being able to ship the spent fuel out of our back yards for many years to come.

Big Market for Disposal

Projected costs for on-site spent nuclear fuel management could be more than $60 billion, and the only recourse available to our nuclear utilities is to sue the federal government for additional costs incurred. Also, nuclear power plants that cannot obtain approval for on-site storage will have to shut down prematurely.

On the other hand, a company called Energy Solutions has accepted spent nuclear fuel from foreign sources and is trying to persuade a federal court to permit it to receive more spent fuel from foreign sources in order to enhance its bottom line.

The reality is that low-level radioactive waste disposal is a virtually untapped gold mine in this country if government will allow private companies to participate in the safe storage of spent nuclear fuel. Most generators of low-level radioactive waste are prepared to pay handsomely for such disposal services.

If the various states choose to block low-level radioactive waste disposal on private or state lands, perhaps the federal government should pursue constructing appropriate facilities on federal land. That is one of the chief reasons why I recommend creating a United States Nuclear Waste Management Agency.

Other Nations Reprocess

Reprocessing spent nuclear fuel is also a viable option. Other industrialized nations reprocess their spent fuel, effectively eliminating almost all waste.

In the United States, however, reprocessing has been shelved for decades since then-President Jimmy Carter signed an executive order halting the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel. Carter feared the second processing cycle would make it easier for terrorists and non-nuclear nations to obtain weapons-grade material for nuclear armaments. This has not posed a problem, however, for the other nations that choose to reprocess their spent nuclear fuel.

Reprocessed fuel is more costly to turn into power, but the amount of spent fuel is relatively small and economies of scale dictate reprocessing would not add much to the cost of nuclear power. Hence it’s not really spent nuclear fuel at all—it is actually renewable nuclear fuel.

Clinton E. Crackel ([email protected]) is co-chairman of the Nuclear Fuels Reprocessing Coalition.