Sen. Lindsey Graham's push to get the federal government to return money collected for a nuclear waste disposal site in Yucca Mountain, Nev., contains some hard-to-argue-with logic: If the Yucca Mountain site is off the table, give us back our money.
That seems especially appropriate when you consider about $27 billion is sitting in a special fund collecting interest. President Barack Obama put a hold on the Yucca Mountain project in February 2009.
Electric utility customers in states with nuclear power have been paying for a central repository site since 1987, when Congress selected Yucca Mountain as a permanent nuclear waste site. About $32 billion in utility surcharges have been collected, including $1.3 billion from South Carolinians. The government had spent $12 billion studying, designing and starting to build the underground vault before the Obama administration decision stopped the work.
The Energy Department says it is developing an alternative site, based on recommendations provided in January from a blue-ribbon panel convened in 2010.
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The nation's 65 commercial nuclear plants hold 54,700 metric tons of waste produced by 104 generators in the 31 states, McClatchy Newspapers' James Rosen reports. The Savannah River Site in Aiken County, the Hanford complex in Washington state and several other former nuclear weapons sites store an additional 12,800 tons of more toxic spent fuel that was supposed to have started going to the Yucca site in 1998.
Graham's bill, also supported by Sen. Jim DeMint, calls for returning three-quarters of the money to utility customers. The remaining quarter would go to utilities to upgrade waste storage facilities at commercial nuclear plants.
The whole affair is troubling. We can't keep pushing this problem down the road, especially when more nuclear power plants are on the horizon.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has not ruled on Energy Secretary Steven Chu's bid to withdraw the Yucca license application. As a result, a lawsuit filed by South Carolina and Washington state was deemed premature by the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals. The two states filed new claims, charging the commission with unreasonable delay in making a decision.
Still up is a lawsuit filed by the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, which has asked the courts to stop the federal government from collecting the surcharge until a new waste site is identified. Arguments in that case are scheduled for May 2.
That seems the least the federal government can do. But what we really need is a long-term repository for spent nuclear fuel. We're decades behind on that. And if a central site is not feasible, then we need to develop other ways to safely deal with the waste.
The spent fuel -- and the disposal problem -- aren't going away.