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Editorial: Illinois, the nuclear waste state via Chicago Tribune

“The Land of Lincoln is the country’s largest de facto nuclear waste dump.”

— Kevin McDermott, writing in Illinois Issues magazine.


Nuclear power supplies one-fifth of America’s electricity. It’s reliable, proven and immune to upheaval in oil-producing nations or domestic hurricane zones. Equally important these days, it produces none of the greenhouse gas emissions that are heating up the planet. The downside is that it does produce radioactive waste, which requires secure disposal. And secure disposal has been painfully hard to come by.

That’s not for any technical or logistical reason. Quite the contrary, it’s a simple task. In 1987, after much study, the federal government settled on the perfect place for this spent fuel: a remote site in Nevada called Yucca Mountain, where it could be buried deep underground, posing no danger to anyone. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission confirmed in a 2014 report that this repository would keep the waste contained for 1 million years. Even the local jackrabbits and tarantulas would have nothing to worry about.

Taxpayers and ratepayers have been dunned for the cost of building and maintaining the facility. But so far, all they’ve gotten for their money is a giant, vacant hole in the ground.

In the meantime, some 80,000 tons of waste has piled up at 80 far less secure temporary sites in 35 states, and the piles are growing all the time. Want to guess which state has acquired the largest stash while waiting for Yucca Mountain to open for business? That’s right: Illinois.


President Donald Trump, by contrast, wants to finally get the repository online. His proposed budget for 2018 includes $120 million to get the licensing process going so the government can bring this overdue project to fulfillment. Energy Secretary Rick Perry has called it a “moral obligation.” With Reid now retired and Republicans in control of the House and Senate, it should be possible to finally get Yucca Mountain in operation. This is the moment.

But is it? Nevada’s Republican Sen. Dean Heller, who is up for re-election next year, is no more fond of the idea than Reid was. “Nevada will not serve as our nation’s nuclear waste dump,” vowed Heller, who put a hold on a high Energy Department appointment over the issue. And, former Deputy Assistant Energy Secretary Robert L. Ferguson wrote in the Aug. 16 Wall Street Journal, “The GOP leadership, desperate for votes to repeal Obamacare, wants to protect one of its own.”

We hope that’s a passing fancy. Congressional Republicans — not to mention Democrats from Illinois and other states stuck with casks of spent fuel — know that the problem needs to be solved and that there is no better option.

This isn’t an issue that excites many voters who don’t live near nuclear plants, but it ought to be a crucial priority for members of the Illinois delegation. Now is their chance to safeguard nuclear waste in a much more secure location and also improve the outlook for nuclear energy. Otherwise, we could be waiting a million years.

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