Kerry of Two Minds on Nuclear Power

Published November 1, 2004

John Kerry was much lampooned during the presidential campaign for saying he “actually voted for” funding U.S. troops in Iraq “before he voted against it.” His position on nuclear power was similarly contradictory.

Kerry’s campaign Web site stated, “nuclear power can play an essential role in providing affordable energy while reducing the risk of climate change.” His aides said he was for nuclear power.

But on a campaign stop in Las Vegas, about 100 miles from the planned Yucca Mountain site for long-term disposal of waste from nuclear power plants, Kerry said, “When I’m president of the United States, I’ll tell you about Yucca Mountain: Not on my watch.”

The reality of the matter is that you can’t be “for” nuclear energy and “against” Yucca Mountain.

Site Necessary for Safe Storage

Yucca Mountain is in a remote desert on federally protected land within the secure boundaries of the former nuclear weapons testing grounds known as the Nevada Test Site–that is, Yucca Mountain is in the middle of nowhere.

The idea is to place sealed containers of radioactive spent fuel from nuclear power plants in underground tunnels deep below Yucca Mountain. This system, which has been in the works for about 25 years, is designed to prevent radiation from the waste leaking into the environment–for tens of thousands of years, proponents say.

The need for the Yucca Mountain disposal site is obvious. Without it, nuclear power plants, which provide about 20 percent of U.S. electric power, may have to start shutting down in the near future.

Spent nuclear fuel is currently stored on-site, either in steel-lined concrete pools filled with water or, in situations where the pools are full, in above-ground, dry storage facilities.

Under a 1982 federal law, spent fuel was supposed to be transported to a centralized storage facility by 1998. Although the Yucca Mountain site was selected for the repository in 1987, anti-nuclear activists have been able to delay progress.

Unrealistic Demands Delay Progress

Not only have the activists whipped up public fear of Yucca Mountain among Nevadans, but they’ve also been successful in getting the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to set overly stringent, if not flat-out impossible-to-meet, waste containment standards for the site.

Perhaps the most outrageous requirement, adopted by EPA in June 2001, is that the Department of Energy ensure spent fuel stored at Yucca Mountain remain contained on-site for 10,000 years–a period of time roughly twice as long as all of recorded history.

As if that standard weren’t tough enough to meet, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled on July 9, 2004 that 10,000 years was not long enough.

Yucca Mountain, the court said, must function acceptably for hundreds of thousands of years.

Needless to say, it doesn’t look like Yucca Mountain will be opening in 2010, as currently planned, if ever. That may be a major problem for the production of nuclear power in the United States.

Necessary for Nuclear Power

Although American nuclear power plants were designed to store at least a decade’s worth of spent fuel, they are now running out of space.

By 2010, which is the earliest Yucca Mountain could go into operation under the best of circumstances, 78 of the nation’s 103 nuclear plants will not have space for spent fuel in their pools.

Though fuel may be stored in the above-ground dry storage containers, this is expensive–$1 million for a container stored outside on a concrete pad–and some states already have moved to limit the expansion of these facilities, in response to pressure from anti-nuclear activists.

Why do anti-nuclear activists oppose Yucca Mountain, especially when it would allow the safe burial of nuclear waste in the middle of nowhere rather than the above-ground storage of waste near populated centers?

The activists don’t really oppose the burial of nuclear waste under all conditions. But they know the longer Yucca Mountain is delayed, the more difficulty nuclear power plants will have in storing spent fuel, so they’ll be forced to produce less of it.

Anti-nuclear activists, in fact, hope to shut down the nuclear power industry by making it impossible for nuclear plants to store spent fuel anywhere. The Sierra Club, for example, flatly states on its Web site, “Land disposal is not acceptable for hazardous waste.”

This strategy is akin to the adolescent prank of putting a banana in an automobile tailpipe–without anywhere for exhaust to go, the engine will stall.

There is no practical centralized repository alternative to Yucca Mountain, a site that has been under study and development for decades. Any alternative site would likely absorb a similar amount of time–something the nuclear power industry may not have.

Nuclear power is the only realistic alternative to burning fossil fuels for electricity generation. Given that John Kerry is a believer in manmade global warming, he may have to rethink his position on Yucca Mountain.

Steven Milloy ([email protected]) is publisher of, where this essay first appeared. He is also an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and author of Junk Science Judo: Self-Defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).

For more information …

see the Nuclear Energy Institute publication, Used Nuclear Fuel Management, available online at