By David Klaus, August 26, 2020
Believe it or not, there is an issue on which Donald Trump and Joe Biden agree: Both have announced their opposition to building an underground repository to permanently store nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. With the presidential candidates on record, it is time for everyone else to accept that Yucca Mountain is finally off the table, and for the United States to begin to seriously consider realistic alternatives for safely managing the more than 80,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel currently sitting at 72 operating and shut-down commercial nuclear reactor sites across the country.
US policy regarding spent fuel disposal has been hung up for decades on whether to build a repository at Yucca Mountain. The site has been controversial since 1987, when Congress designated it as the future home for high-level radioactive waste – provided, of course, that it meets all technical requirements and is licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Thirty-plus years and more than $15 billion later, all technical work to assess the site’s suitability has stopped and the licensing review is dead in the water. The US Congress has refused to appropriate funds to the project for years. And because the government has not met its commitment to begin accepting waste for disposal in 1998, it is forced to pay utilities more than $600 million every year to store their spent fuel on site. Moreover, the most realistic approach for managing the tons of spent fuel—an interim storage facility—is held hostage to progress on Yucca Mountain. Current law requires that the NRC issue a license for Yucca Mountain before a consolidated interim storage could begin to accept spent fuel.