THE light at the end of this tunnel isn't a radioactive glow, but the demise of the federal plan to store nuclear waste deep beneath Nevada's Yucca Mountain. That decision leaves the Obama Administration in the awkward position of promoting growth of the nuclear power industry while reducing to zero the available options for where to put its dangerous waste product.
If the United States is to lessen its $700-billion-a-year dependence on foreign oil and address global warning issues, nuclear power, along with wind, solar, geothermal, and hydroelectric power will have to be part of the solution. President Obama signaled his awareness of that in his State of the Union address, calling for "a new generation of safe, clean nuclear-power plants." He supported that call by tripling to $54 billion the amount of federal loan guarantees for financing new nuclear plants.
But candidate Obama said in 2008 - and President Obama reiterated last year - that Yucca Mountain, about 80 miles northwest of Las Vegas, was not going to be the final resting place for the toxic waste left over from nuclear-power generation. Now, acting on that promise, the administration has declared its intention to withdraw the application to build the underground storage facility.
That's fine, except that there is no backup plan, no secondary final resting place waiting in the wings, and there hasn't been one since Yucca Mountain was chosen as the preferred site in 1987. So after spending
$38 billion on Yucca, federal officials will start over, spending billions more looking for Yucca's replacement.
Meanwhile, the more than 60,000 tons of highly radioactive nuclear waste being stored at 104 reactors in 31 states will grow by some 2,000 tons per year for the foreseeable future.
Finding an appropriate alternative that meets the geologic and seismic requirements to ensure long-term security from radioactive leaks will only be the beginning. Of equal importance, as opposition to Yucca made clear, is the near-impossible task of avoiding the NIMBY effect, which says that nuclear power (or prisons or wind turbines or shopping malls) is a good idea, but Not In My Back Yard.
Nuclear power plants have become immeasurably safer since 1979, when a reactor at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania suffered a partial core meltdown that slowed the building of new reactors in the United States to a crawl. Only in recent years have rising oil prices and growing concern over global warming sparked interest anew in the nuclear option.
So while the decision to look elsewhere for a waste-storage site may be justifiable - and it certainly provides Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) a rare victory as he prepares for a tough re-election fight - the United States cannot afford to wait another 30 years to solve the problem of what to do with nuclear waste.