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June 19, 2012

Yucca Mountain: The Safe Future for Nuclear Energy

June 19, 2012
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Despite controversy surrounding the disposal of spent nuclear fuel, nuclear power will continue to occupy an essential role in the United States’ electricity production for the foreseeable future. The 19 percent of the electricity generated in the United States by nuclear power plants is comparable to the electricity used in California, Texas, and New York combined. Besides that, nuclear power accounts for 8.5 percent of our total domestic energy consumption. [1]

Nuclear plants—of which there are 104 total in the United States—produce far less waste than traditional power plants: a 1,000-MW nuclear-electric plant, for example, produces about one metric ton of waste per year, versus one million tons from a similarly sized coal plant.  However, the nuclear waste is much more toxic and is harder to dispose of. Considering that the federal government has terminated the operation of the private spent fuel reprocessing facilities in the 1970s, and is unlikely to bring them back, geological isolation of the hazardous materials is the only viable long-term disposal solution currently available. This means storing the waste in highly stable geologic formations that have remained seismically inactive for millions of years. [2]

In this light, the March 2010 decision of the Obama administration to withdraw funding from the Yucca Mountain project – the nation’s only permanent repository for high-level spent nuclear fuel authorized by current law – was  presents a troubling picture for the future of nuclear energy. [3] In the absence of almost any viable alternatives, killing a government-funded project that has been in development for more than 20 years and cost $15 billion was a huge blow to the taxpayers that funded it.

The Obama administration has been handling this critical issue with a complete lack of consistency: on one hand the President extols the benefits of nuclear power in his speeches, and on the other he advocates closing the byproduct storage facility that ensures it can have a future. Even considering the extra costs associated with the revival of the Yucca Mountain, bringing the storage back would make more sense in the long run for a number of reasons.

First, Yucca Mountain has undergone a 30-year-long process of scientific examination and has been accepted by law (see Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, as amended in 1987) as the only permanent nuclear waste repository in the United States. Since people are reluctant to live near a nuclear waste dump, the territory on which the depository was supposed to be constructed is highly unlikely to be ever re-used for agricultural needs or settlements. Furthermore, U.S. taxpayers have already spent $15 billion in studying and development in the project so far, making its abandonment in favor of a yet-undiscovered alternate location a hugely uneconomic decision.

Moreover, the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 required utilities that generate electricity using nuclear power to pay a fee of one tenth of one cent ($0.001) per kilowatt-hour into the Nuclear Waste Fund, which would be used to help pay for Yucca Mountain. At some point, the Federal government needs to move forward and provide a return on that investment. [4]

Lastly, the inability of federal policymakers to neither agree on the Yucca Mountain site nor come up with alternatives exposes American taxpayers to millions of dollars gone down the drain while nuclear energy’s future remains stuck among the papers on the desks of the Department of Energy officials.

Let’s face it: There is probably no immediate solution to the spent nuclear fuel disposal issue during a presidential election year. Yet, being a relatively safe and environmentally efficient way of generating electricity, nuclear power will continue to be an important, even indispensable, part of the U.S. energy mix. For this reason, the revival of the Yucca Mountain facility makes the best economic and energy sense for America’s nuclear powered future.

(IER Summer Policy Fellow Natalia Suvorova contributed to this post)


[1] “Hard Facts. An Energy Primer,” Institute for Energy Research, 2012.

[2]  Robert L. Bradley. Using Energy

[3] “Administration actions designed to increase the cost and reduce the reliability of energy,” Institute for Energy Research, 2011.

[4] “Nuclear Power,” Institute for Energy Research,, 2008.

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