OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR

Getting the Nation’s Nuclear Waste Disposal Back on Track 

For decades nuclear power has played an important role in generating electricity throughout the country, by accounting for nearly 20 percent of all electricity generated across the United States over the past 30 years. Nuclear power is safe, reliable, emissions-free, and most importantly provides low-cost, affordable energy for consumers around the country.

While generating nuclear power sounds daunting, when distilled down to its basic operations it is easily understood. The process starts by splitting uranium atoms inside of a reactor, a process known as fission. The heat produced from fission is then used to produce steam, which in turn spins a turbine that generates electricity, just like most other energy sources, such as coal or gas.  However, this process generates baseload power without producing any greenhouse gas emissions, making it one of the cleanest forms of energy.

Not only is nuclear power clean and reliable, but also it’s efficient. According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, one single uranium fuel pellet the size of a pencil eraser contains the same amount of energy as 17,000 cubic feet of natural gas, 1,780 pounds of coal or 149 gallons of oil.

The byproduct of nuclear power generation is what’s known as spent nuclear fuel. Unfortunately, due to a lack of a permanent place to dispose of this spent nuclear fuel, it currently sits idle in 121 communities, across 39 states throughout the country waiting to be moved to a permanent repository where it can be safely disposed of for a million years.

When Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act in 1982 – 35 years ago — the Department of Energy was assigned the responsibility to permanently dispose of spent nuclear fuel from commercial power plants across the country. Five years later, Congress made changes to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act and designated Yucca Mountain as the first location to dispose of spent nuclear fuel. In 2002, Congress affirmed President Bush’s recommendation that the site was suitable for development and in 2008 the Department of Energy submitted an application to construct the Yucca Mountain repository to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Unfortunately, the Obama administration’s Department of Energy stonewalled the project as a political favor to then-Senate Majority Leader Reid.

Located in the Nevada desert, Yucca Mountain would safely isolate spent nuclear material 1,000 feet underground. In fact, an independent study conducted by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission determined that Yucca Mountain could safely store spent nuclear fuel for one million years. To date, American ratepayers have already contributed more than $40 billion towards this infrastructure project, $15 billion of which has already been spent.

Despite Yucca Mountain’s proven safety record and the billions of taxpayer dollars already invested, the Obama administration tried to block the program from moving forward. That’s why the House Energy and Commerce Committee, in coordination with the Department of Energy, is now working on a comprehensive, bipartisan, permanent solution to address this challenging issue, with Yucca Mountain as the cornerstone of that policy.

To date, the committee has received testimony from more than 30 witnesses throughout numerous hearings, we’ve sent oversight letters to the Department of Energy and Government Accountability Office, and some members of the committee have traveled out to Yucca Mountain to see just how remote the site actually is. We have done our oversight and it is clear that the time to fix this problem is now.

The Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act of 2017 represents a comprehensive package to advance the nation’s nuclear waste management policy. We’ve heard from various states across the country expressing concern with spent nuclear fuel sitting in their states while the federal government has failed to honor its promise to provide permanent storage. This bill addresses that.

To aid in the disposal process, for the first time we’re also authorizing the Department of Energy to partner with private interim storage initiatives. Interim storage is exactly what it sounds like. Spent nuclear fuel scattered across the country would be placed into private, temporary storage facilities where it can be safely housed until Yucca Mountain is ready for operation.

This legislation also provides the state of Nevada and state hosts of interim storage facilities financial support for storage. It improves the efficiency of NRC’s licensing process, strengthens DOE’s management of its nuclear waste management organization, protects our country’s national security priorities, and reforms the nuclear waste fund to protect ratepayers.  Most importantly, this bill will help the federal government fulfill its responsibilities to dispose of spent nuclear fuel by getting the Department of Energy’s nuclear waste management program back on track, thereby finally providing a path to reduce skyrocketing taxpayer liabilities.

At the end of the day this bill is good for taxpayers, communities, and ratepayers. Thirty-five years ago Congress enacted the Nuclear Waste Policy Act and 30 years ago Congress designated the Yucca Mountain site as the sole location for the first repository. It’s now time for the federal government to fulfill its obligation and permanently dispose of the spent nuclear fuel sitting in our states, alongside our lakes, rivers and roadways. The time for action is now and we intend to roll up our sleeves to get this done.

 

 

Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) is chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) is chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy. Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) is a member of the energy subcommittee.

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