As Japan battles an ongoing nuclear crisis caused by an earthquake-triggered tsunami, the U.S. has gotten caught in its schizophrenic stance on nuclear power. This week the Obama administration at once reiterated its commitment to nuclear power expansion while expressing concern about a once-shuttered plan to store nuclear waste in Nevada’s Yucca Mountain. On Tuesday, Energy Secretary Steven Chu also said that the Obama administration may be forced to revisit the Yucca Mountain plan if it loses a legal challenge.
"We will take it one step at a time," Chu said at a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing yesterday, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported. "We have preserved the records, and some of the key people have been transferred to the nuclear energy division and so we can start this up. If we are required to start it up, we will start it up."
Next week the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia is set to hear oral arguments in a lawsuit brought by Washington, South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee and Idaho. The states are home to nuclear power plants that have been housing their own nuclear waste with the promise that a permanent waste storage site would be opened. They sued the Obama administration in 2009 after President Obama and Chu halted the Yucca Mountain program, which is located on a site considered sacred to Native American tribes in the region. Last year the Nuclear Regulatory Commission sided with those states, ruling that the Obama administration didn’t have the right to shut down Yucca Mountain.
Chu’s comments on Tuesday are a shift in tone from his 2009 remarks when he said, unequivocally, "Yucca Mountain as a repository is off the table. What we’re going to be doing is saying, let’s step back. We realize that we know a lot more today than we did 25 or 30 years ago."
Chu said that they would still prefer to explore other options for nuclear waste storage.
"The history of Yucca Mountain is one that has taught us a lesson," Chu said on Tuesday. "In picking future sites you are going to have to start a dialogue with the states and communities and do this in a way where 49 (states) don’t gang up on one."
Native American groups have fought plans to carve tunnels through Yucca Mountain to store uranium fuel rods in the mountain. They say that the site is a sacred spiritual site, and that storing uranium indefinitely there would also put the region at significant risk.
The fight illustrates the fundamental difficulties of nuclear power production. Nuclear power is often praised as an efficient non-polluting alternative to fossil fuels. But scientists have yet to figure out a solution to manage the waste that it produces, even as the country continues plans to expand nuclear power production. What to do with spent nuclear fuel rods is a key concern–much of the danger Japan is facing comes from the threat of spent fuel rods that are heating up faster than engineers can keep them cool.
Spent uranium fuel rods remain toxic and dangerous for at least 10,000 years. And the combined brilliance and forethought of an international society of scientists has yet to figure out how to manage them that long.
The crisis in Japan is forcing a re-evaluation of nuclear energy in the U.S. "You would have to be out of your mind to witness what we are seeing happening in Japan and still be urging this country to move toward nuclear energy with all deliberate haste," Nevada Rep. Shelley Berkley said, the Las Vegas Sun reported. "This should be a wake-up call to us: If we can’t do it better and learn from their mistakes, we’d better seriously look at alternative energy."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has said that as long as he is in the Senate, he will block any plan to open a permanent nuclear waste storage site in his home state.
While the majority of Americans support nuclear power expansion, public opinion polls show that most people also say that they don’t want power plants or waste to be stored near them.