Obama and the Politics of Nuclear Waste

It was one of Barack Obama's big applause lines. At nearly every campaign stop, the candidate promised to end our dependence on foreign oil and slash carbon emissions 80 percent by midcentury. "I will set a clear goal as president," he said in his speech accepting the Democratic nomination. "I will tap our natural-gas reserves, invest in clean coal technology and find ways to safely harness nuclear power." He also promised to back biofuels and wind, water and solar power. The crowd cheered.

Now all he has to do is make good on the promise. But despite all the inspiring talk about windmills and solar panels, it's difficult to see how Obama will reach that goal without relying, in large part, on nuclear power. Commercial reactors currently provide 20 percent of the nation's power—but accounts for 70 percent of the country's emission-free energy. "We cannot get to the reduction of CO2 in a big way without relying on nuclear energy even more than we do today," says Mujid Kazimi, the director of MIT's Center for Advanced Nuclear Systems.

So does that mean Obama will become the nation's cheerleader in chief for nuclear power? Not likely. Obama has been cautious whenever he's been asked about the issue. In a "Meet the Press" appearance in May, he hedged when the subject came up. "I think we do have to look at nuclear, and what we've got to figure out is can we store the material properly? Can we make sure that they're secure? Can we deal with the expense?"

Not exactly a full-throated endorsement. Obama's lack of enthusiasm is easy to understand politically, especially given the apprehension many voters have about the safety of nuclear-power plants. Three decades later, Three Mile Island still haunts—despite the pleas of industry advocates who say the technology has improved to the point that accidents are almost unheard of. Most Americans probably have no idea that there are 104 commercial nuclear-power plants currently operating in the United States today. None has suffered a malfunction that led to a major leak of radioactive material. Nuclear-power proponents often point to France, which depends on nukes for 80 percent of its power.

A bigger problem than the safety of the reactors themselves is what to do with the deadly waste they produce. Nuclear power is praised for its zero carbon emissions, but it comes at a price—radioactive fuel rods that remain toxic for thousands of years. If you're looking for a reason to feel queasy about building more nuclear reactors, this is it. While politicians bicker over where to put it all—nuclear waste is the ultimate "not in my backyard" dispute—the stuff is piling up. As things are now, a lot of it is simply stockpiled at the plants, submerged in open pools of water for as long as five years and eventually sealed in steel and concrete casks. "You have more than 100 reactors storing waste on-site, under what the Nuclear Regulatory Commission calls a temporary license, in the worst of all possible places," says Rochelle Becker of the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility, a nonprofit that monitors the nuclear-power industry. "In California, it's stored next to earthquake faults. In the rest of the country, you find that most waste is sitting very close to water supplies."

Nuclear-power companies pay a fee to the Department of Energy to pick up and store the waste, which by law becomes government property once it leaves the plant. But Energy is already 10 years behind schedule, and has no place to put it. The Feds want to store it in a vast facility inside Nevada's Yucca Mountain, about 100 miles from Las Vegas, where it would be closely monitored and far away from neighborhoods, earthquake zones and water supplies. Shipping the nation's nuclear waste to Nevada sounds good to just about everyone—everyone, that is, who doesn't live in Nevada. The state's officials, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, are against it and have kept it from opening. This is where Obama, who has strongly criticized the Bush administration for putting politics ahead of facts, could step in and provide leadership on a national problem that will only become worse as more nuclear plants are built in coming years: plans for 26 new reactors are currently awaiting approval.

But don't expect the new president to demand that Reid clear out of the way. Nevada was one of the states Obama fought hard to win, and he wooed its voters partly by coming out against opening Yucca Mountain. "[T]here are still significant questions about whether nuclear waste can be stored safely there," he wrote to a Las Vegas newspaper. "I believe a better short-term solution is to store nuclear waste on-site at the reactors where it is produced, until we find a safe, long-term solution that is based on sound science."

Sounds reasonable enough. Except that sound science already comes down firmly on the side of Yucca Mountain. "The best option is deep geologic isolation," says Per Peterson, a UC Berkeley professor who specializes in radioactive-waste management. "It's based on 50 years of research and development, and a very broad, widespread and strong consensus that it can provide appropriate and safe disposal of waste." Good luck finding a nuclear-waste expert who'll tell you Obama's stopgap solution—let it pile up and deal with it later —has anything to do with "sound science." Sound politics is more like it.

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