While the Bush administration took many wrong positions over eight years, it was right on one aspect of the nation's energy policy: It supported using Yucca Mountain in Nevada as a repository for nuclear waste.
The Obama administration is unwisely -- if predictably -- changing that. Last week, Energy Secretary Steven Chu told a Senate hearing that the Yucca site was no longer viewed as an option -- this after billions of dollars had been spent on it over the years. A new plan will be developed, but in the long meantime nuclear waste will remain on site at nuclear power plants.
The Obama administration isn't abandoning nuclear power, which makes sense given the role that it could play in reducing global warming and indeed plays now in providing one-fifth of the nation's electricity. To that end, the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry group, noted approvingly that the omnibus spending bill passed by the Senate on Tuesday extended indefinitely the loan guarantees for clean-energy technology. The legislation includes $18.5 billion in loan guarantees for advanced-design nuclear plants. At the same time, the NEI was disappointed that the bill reduced the Department of Energy's nuclear fuel management program.
In fact, the federal government has spectacularly failed to manage waste. By law, it is supposed to take responsibility for nuclear waste, but it never has, despite Congress approving the Yucca Mountain site as recently as 2002. This inaction has not stopped the government from annually taking money from nuclear power customers (more than $750 million, according to the NEI) for the Nuclear Waste Fund -- and then diverting some of it.
Yucca Mountain, of course, has been faulted on several grounds -- leaching water, seismic activity, dangers posed by waste transportation. But its worst enemy has been NIMBY -- the Not In My Back Yard syndrome that bedevils much of politics. Nevada has led the charge in bitterly opposing this plan.
Whatever one thinks of the merits of Yucca Mountain as a nuclear waste site, it has been an object lesson in dysfunctional policy-making, which the Obama administration's decision now brings full circle.
Yucca Mountain has been the sole site under consideration since 1987, and the time and treasure spent on it have been immense. America is left with a government that encourages nuclear power with one hand, takes away its waste options with the other, avoids its legal obligations with eyes wide open, talks up the importance of global warming, but can't put its policies where its mouth is. (This debate isn't remote from Pittsburgh -- Westinghouse Electric Co., based in Monroeville, is the major designer of reactors in the world).
Americans should get used to a stalemate that will last years, perhaps forever. The 60,000 tons of used fuel at the nation's 104 reactors in 31 states will continue to accumulate, because every other waste site that may be considered will have its own backyard and inevitably its own problems. This is good for nobody except the lawyers who file lawsuits.