If Not Yucca, where?

There has been vigorous debate on the future of nuclear energy both domestically and abroad since Japan's earthquake and tsunami. Regardless of whether the Japan crisis tempers supports for nuclear energy, U.S. policy makers will have to confront the challenges posed by the management and disposal of nuclear waste. Japan's nuclear crisis could spur new momentum for the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository due to heightened concerns among the pubic and politicians related to the current storage of spent fuel at U.S. nuclear power plants. Currently, the majority of nuclear waste is stored at cooling pools that are similar to those at the Fukushima Daiichi facility in Japan, and this fact is sparking debate on the safety of these pools. In 1982, Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA) that established the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management within the DOE and charged it with identifying a deep geological repository for the disposal of spent nuclear fuel. In 1987, Congress amended the NWPA to restrict DOE's repository site studies to Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Prior to leaving office, the Bush Administration submitted to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission a license approval for the Yucca Mountain site. Last year, the Obama Administration withdrew that license application, arguing that "Yucca Mountain is not a workable option." Instead, the Obama Administration appointed a Blue Ribbon Commission to study alternatives to Yucca Mountain for managing and disposing of nuclear waste. Prior to Japan's earthquake and tsunami, the decision to close Yucca Mountain already faced significant bipartisan opposition that included notable Democrats like Senator Patty Murray (WA) and Representative Norm Dicks (WA), the Ranking Member of the House Appropriations Committee. Concerns over the current storage of spent fuel in on-site pools could cause other lawmakers to reconsider their opposition to using Yucca Mountain as a long-term storage repository. The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals also heard oral arguments this week in a lawsuit by industry and several states challenging the Obama Administration's decision to close Yucca Mountain. It has been nearly 30 years since Congress first called for the establishment of a long-term repository for nuclear waste, yet continued political opposition and parochial concerns have kept the federal government from meeting this goal. In the wake of the Japan crisis, the Obama Administration will face increased pressure to defend its decision to close Yucca Mountain and articulate a viable alternative for managing and disposing of our nation's nuclear waste. Simply appointing a Blue Ribbon Commission to study and report on the issue will no longer be sufficient unless the Administration demonstrates that it is serious about addressing long-term disposal issues.

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