Radioactive politics


The Obama Administration talks a good game about global warming and the use of nuclear energy, which has the advantage of not producing greenhouse gases. But when it comes to providing the nuclear industry with a site for storing waste, the White House policy is to do nothing — never mind what the law says.

This week, a federal appeals court ruled that doing nothing on the Yucca Mountain repository site in Nevada must stop. The court panel ordered the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to make up its mind on the licensing application for developing Yucca Mountain. The commission, the court said, “continued to violate the law” by not deciding.

The Obama Administration has violated norms of good governance and common sense. Yucca Mountain was settled on years ago as the sole candidate for a nuclear repository site. The George W. Bush administration submitted the licensing application in 2008.

Under the federal Nuclear Waste Policy Act, the NRC had three years to make up its mind. So much for that. The merits of the site need to be officially weighed, but radioactive politics has become a greater problem than the technical arguments.

When he first ran for president, Barack Obama rightly saw the value of one site in the nation to store safely all the material piling up at nuclear plants around the country. As president, he cynically changed his mind.

Worse, he appointed Gregory Jaczko, a former staffer of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) as NRC chairman. True to his old boss’ opposition, Mr. Jaczko in 2010 told commission staff to stop working on the application.

It is tempting to think that government’s inability to do anything these days is the monopoly of Tea Party Republicans. But Yucca Mountain is a reminder that Democrats can play that game too.

Billions of taxpayer dollars have gone toward this project, and it has been studied to death. More than 80,000 pounds of spent nuclear fuel and high-level nuclear waste sit at 80 sites in 35 states.

Mr. Obama needs to use this kick in the pants from the court to get moving on the Yucca application so that it can be fairly decided, yea or nay, not consigned to perpetual, dysfunctional, and illegal bureaucratic limbo.