The writing has been on the wall for the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository ever since Steven Chu took control of the Department of Energy earlier this year. In March, YMNWR was cut out of the energy stimulus package, and now after a long-term campaign to rid his state of the project many call "the failed $100 billion dinosaur in the desert," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced that all application funding has been cut for the project, meaning that it will likely never be resuscitated.
The project has a long history rife with scandals, including falsified documents to support the project, despite evidence of 621 seismic events in the area and a highly fractured geology. Until this year, the DOE held that the site would safely store the 77,000 tons of radioactive waste for 10,000 years. Now few believe it was ever viable.
What does this mean for the nuclear industry as a whole?
Well, gone are the days when the issue of nuclear waste can be side swept. The nuclear industry has hailed nuclear power as the cheapest source of carbon-free energy, but that calculus has rested upon the supposition that U.S. taxpayers and ratepayers will pay for the most costly aspect of nuclear power — waste disposal.
With Reid's announcement, the industry lost its fairy tale with a happy ending. There will never be a safe, sealed-up mountain to stash highly radioactive waste. The billions and billions of public dollars that have gone into Yucca Mountain will almost certainly guarantee that Yucca will be the first and last attempt of its kind.
Does it mean nuclear is off the table? Well, no. Steven Chu allocated a whopping $6 billion in funding for research into the downcycling of nuclear waste. I recently visited LANL, the hometown of nuclear fission, and saw exhibits from dozens of brilliant scientists working to pick apart the molecules that make spent uranium so dangerous.
So with the big cash incentives now available to innovators in nuclear fuel and nuclear waste, we may soon (and I mean 15-20 years) have a method for reusing and ultimately neutralizing the 77,000 tons of toxic radioactive waste contained in dozens of sites around the country.
In the meantime, the NEI (Nuclear Energy Institute) is suing the the U.S government for promising to deliver Yucca Mountain and failing. It is likely to be a costly lesson for both the nuclear industry and the government, as the liability details get sorted out.
Photo: Peace Development Fund