Bye Bye Yucca?

As noted by energy reporter Matthew A. Wald in todayâ''s New York Times, the Obama budget contains no funding for the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, which sounds like its death knell. The decision, consistent with a campaign promise that Obama made, arguably owes much more to politics than to science or technology. Nevada, home of the repository that would be built at the former nuclear weapons testing area, is prominently represented in Congress by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Even more importantly, Nevada emerged somewhat improbably in recent years as a red-blue battleground state, guaranteeing that many a serious candidate for national office would promise to terminate plans for the repository (though McCain did not).

Five years ago, a Federal judge ruled that to be certified for construction and operation, the nuclear spent fuel stored at Yucca Mountain would have to be proved safe for a million years. On the face of it, this is a ridiculous standard: hardly anything can be â''provedâ'' safe for a million years; and one would think, after perhaps 625,000 years, that we would learn a thing or two about storing nuclear wastesâ''and that if they wereâ''t safe at Yucca, well then, weâ''d move them somewhere else.

But to negate that judgeâ''s ruling, the president and Congress would have to pass a law setting a different standard. That plainly is not going to happen. The result will be, as Wald spells out today, an avalanche of litigation, and many more years of arduous negotiation and planning, starting once again from Go.

An amusing but essentially wrong-headed commentary in the liberal e-zine Slate calls this the one decision of Obamaâ''s that will have an impact for a million years. Timothy Noah argues that in making the decision, Obama is saying essentially that the answer to the nuclear waste problem is not to create any more nuclear waste. Thatâ''s not what Obama is saying. He was cautiously but firmly and consistently pro-nuclear throughout his campaign. Noah also deems untenable the current system of storing wastes temporarily on-site in water pools and then transferring the spent fuel to dry casks. Wald has argued persuasively in Scientific American (March 2003) that the system, though far from ideal, is tenable as long as we need use it.


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