Earlier this week, Senate leader Harry Reid presented Barack Obama with what might just be the first ultimatum of his presidency. Speaking to reporters, the Nevada Democrat lavished praise upon the incoming president - then announced that he’d work to block the appointment of any Energy Secretary who backed the construction of a controversial national nuclear-waste repository at Yucca Mountain, a rocky bluff a few dozen miles from Las Vegas.

On the face of it, that’s not such a big deal. As Reid pointed out, on the campaign trail Obama opposed the Yucca Mountain project and told Nevadan voters that he’d prefer to store radioactive waste on-site at power plants until a long-term solution could be found. Reid is clearly hoping that Obama will be happy to let the issue slide, allowing Yucca Mountain to die quietly rather than risking an ugly internal showdown before he’s even taken office.

It may not be easy for Obama to duck the nuclear issue altogether, though. America’s domestic nuclear problems are deeply entangled with the equally thorny issue of international nuclear proliferation - an issue made all the more pressing by a new congressional report warning that terrorists will likely launch an attack using WMD by 2013. Preventing proliferation will require the President-Elect to work to secure loose nukes overseas, of course, but it will also require him to clarify the role of nuclear power in America’s own energy revolution.

At present, about 50 countries around the world are interested in acquiring civilian nuclear technology. That’s something of a nightmare scenario for the nonproliferation crowd: with dozens of countries processing atomic fuel, it would be all too easy for nuclear materials to fall into the wrong hands.

One possible solution would be some version of former President Bush’s Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, a framework that would see the US “lease” uranium to countries that want nuclear energy, and accept the waste from the plants for reprocessing or storage on US soil. In theory, that would help keep enriched uranium and spent nuclear fuel - the building blocks of a potential nuclear device - under American control and out of the hands of terrorists. Of course, such a program would bring a host of new problems - most notably the question of what to do with all that radioactive waste. (Bush’s GNEP proposals call for the US to develop reprocessing facilities that could safely recycle the spent fuel, but whether that’s practical is still the subject of intense scientific debate.)

Either way, to tackle proliferation will require a full and frank discussion of the waste-management options, from long-term storage to investment in reprocessing technology, if Obama is to sell his vision to the American people or to the international community. Reid is probably right that Obama should shut down the Yucca Mountain project, which has been floundering for years; but he should do so as part of an honest discussion of America’s nuclear future, not simply in reflexive response to a political ultimatum.

Story by Ben Whitcomb. This article originally appeared in Plenty in December 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008

Obama's nuclear problem
President Barack Obama has two nuclear issues to balance: weapons and waste.