Yucca Mountain: Where Doing Nothing Costs A Fortune

Connoisseurs of government waste will find much to savor in the saga of the Yucca Mountain nuclear repository.  To summarize, the government spent years carefully determining that Yucca Mountain in Nevada would be the ideal place to bury spent nuclear fuel.  We may find a comparable site in another state someday, but there is none better.  To borrow a phrase from the global-warming crowd, the science was settled… but the politics was not. 

A lot of Nevada voters didn’t like the idea of having a huge nuclear waste dump in their state, no matter how safe or remote the location.  In order to cultivate their votes, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, and Barack Obama, promised to scuttle the project.  This flushed $15 billion in development costs down the drain, and left all that spent nuclear waste decaying in very expensive, less optimal temporary storage near the reactors.

The methods used to kill the Yucca Mountain project were of great interest to the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has been holding some lively hearings on the subject.  The Las Vegas Sun reports the committee got Assistant Energy Secretary Pete Lyons to admit the decision to close Yucca Mountain was “a question of social, public acceptance,” rather than a matter of science of fiscal responsibility.

This did not go over well with either Republican or Democrat members of the House Energy committee.  Republican Cory Gardner of Colorado pointed out “there is no statutory authority for social acceptance.”  Democrat Jay Inslee of Washington sarcastically asked if there was “something unique about Nevadans” that makes nuclear waste unwelcome there, while it would be “welcomed as rosewater in the rest of the United States.”

The House Energy and Commerce Committee asked the Office of the Inspector General to look into the matter, and just received its report.  Hopefully the report was delivered on laminated sheets, because much coffee was doubtless spat upon it by astonished readers. 

The Inspector General found that Nuclear Regulatory Commission chairman Gregory Jaczko threw a lot of weight around to make sure the Yucca Mountain project was not only killed, but extremely difficult to re-start.  He misled other commissioners about his intentions, suppressed scientific information contrary to his goals, and meddled with safety evaluation reports.  His objective appears to have been slowing down the work of the NRC enough to ensure the Yucca Mountain project died before anyone else in the bureaucracy could administer CPR.  The funeral will probably cost American taxpayers another $15 billion, before all is said and done.

Rep. John Shimkus (R-IL), chairman of the Environment and the Economy Subcommittee, expressed his dismay in a statement:

“The Inspector General’s thorough report confirms many of our worst fears that generated our investigation in the first place.  The report reveals a calculating and political NRC Chairman who has abused his authority, who sought to suppress scientific reports and withhold information from fellow commissioners – strategically working to rig the system in a no holds barred effort to derail the Yucca Mountain repository.  

“The IG provides a disturbing glimpse of Chairman Jaczko’s concerted effort to obliterate the work of the last 30 years, exhibiting complete disregard for the scientific research, bipartisan collaboration, and billions of taxpayer and consumer dollars invested in this national effort to safely and permanently store nuclear waste. Our investigation continues, and we look forward to hearing directly from the Inspector General himself at Tuesday’s hearing.”

The Washington Post notes that “House Republicans want to restore funding for the project and forbid money from going to shut it down – though Mr. Reid will no doubt fight back in the Senate.”  Would anyone like to place a bet on whether we’ll go through all of this again in a different state, ten or twenty years from now, when a replacement site is located?  The scientists of the NRC should be told to cool their heels and wait until a team of political experts has located a state with sufficiently weak congressional influence.  What’s the point of finding another scientifically acceptable location, if it happens to reside in a crucial swing state, or one with a powerful Senator?

The Yucca Mountain saga is a microcosm of a central flaw in our current government: it postures as a champion of “science” and claims its intelligence is superior to the free market in a thousand different ways, but its decisions always boil down to squalid little political struggles.  The NRC bureaucracy was used to win elections for Harry Reid and Barack Obama, not find the most logical way to deal with spent nuclear fuel.  As the House Energy Committee and Inspector General have documented, that kind of thinking is always expensive.