Obama Budget Abandons Yucca Mountain

Published May 1, 2009

In a significant energy policy redirection, the Obama administration appears poised to pull the plug on funds for permanent nuclear waste storage at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

President Barack Obama’s recently unveiled budget eliminates funding for the Yucca Mountain geologic repository, in spite of years of planning and almost $8 billion invested in the project.

Other Options Available

Yucca Mountain may be in limbo, but it is not the only option available for dealing with spent nuclear fuel. Journalist William Tucker, who has written extensively on nuclear power, says the United States could follow France’s lead and reprocess spent fuel.

“The mistaken belief in ‘nuclear waste’ led to the plans for Yucca Mountain in the first place,” Tucker said. “We wouldn’t be in this situation if we would simply recycle some of the spent nuclear fuel, put some of it toward important medical and industrial uses, and return the rest of it to the ground.”

Jay Lehr, Ph.D., senior fellow and science director at The Heartland Institute, agreed.

“The Yucca Mountain repository would not be needed if the United States were to reprocess its fuel rods as most other nations do, reducing the amount of waste material to barely 5 percent of what it is today,” Lehr said.

However, Lehr adds, behind the opposition to nuclear fuel reprocessing is the hope of ending nuclear power production altogether.

“I fear that eliminating Yucca Mountain from the waste disposal mix is intended more to reduce the possibility of building future nuclear energy power plants rather than reflecting a more intelligent approach to the use of nuclear power,” observed Lehr.

Nuclear power currently generates approximately 19 percent of the nation’s electricity supply. According to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, 104 commercial nuclear power reactors are licensed to operate at 65 sites in 31 states.

Still Not Dead

Regardless of the broader implications for nuclear power generally, plans for a permanent nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain are not dead in the water.

“Though the budget proposes to cut funding for current Yucca Mountain operations, it does not stop the Nuclear Regulatory Commission from continuing its review of the Yucca permit application,” said Jack Spencer, a research fellow in nuclear energy issues at The Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC.

“What is important is that Yucca opens; when it opens is a secondary issue,” Spencer added. “President Obama’s middle-of-the-road solution will allow the NRC the time to maintain their authority to make the permit determination. Meanwhile, however, Nevada will lose roughly 600 high-paying, high-tech jobs.”

Drew Thornley ([email protected]) writes from Texas.