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Mountain of bureaucracy

Energy | The Senate and House are caught in an energy industry battle over the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository

WASHINGTON-On the back of a $34.3 billion energy spending bill, the Senate this week moved closer to closing Yucca Mountain, the only developed nuclear waste repository site in the United States. Supporters of the Yucca Mountain project, which is located 90 miles from Las Vegas, say this is another case of Washington bureaucrats mishandling what should be managed by private industry.

The Yucca Mountain project, which is 25 years and $13.5 billion in the making, was on track to begin safely storing at least 77,000 tons of radioactive nuclear waste. But now experts say 155,000 tons of spent radioactive fuel rods will instead remain in already crowded temporary storage facilities beneath nuclear power plants across the country.

An earlier House version of the same bill pushes to keep the Nevada option alive, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has fought hard to close the site and search for alternatives. The Senate, in voting to cut the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's funding in half, sapped it of the resources needed to approve a Yucca opening, and Reid said the Obama administration assured him it would cut such funding completely by 2011.

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"Reid uses every bit of his weight as leader of the Senate to strong-arm people into supporting the death of Yucca Mountain, but I don't think that he's killed it," said Jack Spencer, a nuclear energy expert for The Heritage Foundation.

The Senate will still have to negotiate with the House during a conference committee to hammer out the final version of the bill.

Since the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act, energy companies and consumers have been required to pay over $29 billion into a fund that the government promised to use to construct and operate a permanent nuclear waste repository by 1997. Energy companies already have grown weary of government delays and are threatening to stop their payments. By burying the site that was supposed to bury nuclear waste, the government would be in complete default of its 1982 agreement.

"I don't think it's closing," Spencer told me. "It will muddle along until there is a better resolution for it." He added that the United States needs a geological repository not only for nuclear power plant waste, but also for approximately 7,000 tons of radioactive military waste.

Reid and President Obama, who promised in his campaign to put the brakes on Yucca Mountain, have remained staunch in their objections to using the site. Earlier this year, Energy Secretary Steven Chu said Yucca Mountain was "off the table" and he commissioned a blue-ribbon study group to search for alternatives. But the July House bill required the commission to continue to consider Yucca as a solution.

Critics say the transportation of nuclear waste across the country could be extremely dangerous and Nevada lawmakers for years have used a fight against Yucca as a political rallying device. Obama, however, granted $196 million in funding within the federal budget to keep the site maintained and there is no viable long-term storage alternative.

"No technical study has ever shown that Yucca is not safe," Spencer said.

One alternative to storing spent fuel rods is to recycle them, as France and Japan do, using them a second time to create nuclear energy. Experts say this would cut 155,000 tons of waste to only about 5,000 tons needing to be stored, however, the waste would then be 50 times more radioactive.

The United States currently does not allow nuclear recycling, but experts say overflow waste could be held in interim storage facilities for at least a decade as recycling facilities are developed, and a new government entity could be created to handle the volatile recycled waste.

Spencer says the real solution is to put the energy industry, not the federal government, in the driver's seat to negotiate this process and come up with a viable long-term solution.

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