Japanese Nuclear Situation, Follow up to Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Facility Debate

As a follow up to last week’s nuclear disaster in Japan, on some level things have quieted down somewhat, but then some have revved up.  At Japan’s Fukushima nuclear complex, Unit’s 5&6 are operating normally, and Unit 1 and 2 could be operating within a matter of days.  This leaves Unit 3 the only real problem reactor.  However there are still concerns. Dangerous radiation levels found some 25 miles from the Fukushima complex raise questions about U.S. emergency-response plans that call for evacuating only residents within 10 miles of a disaster. In the United States, only one commercial reactor is within 10 miles of a densely populated city, but 29 are within 25 miles and nearly half are within 50 miles of a metro area with more than 500,000 people.

Those of us who have been following the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste disposal facility are not surprised that the Japanese nuclear disaster brought the Yucca Mountain debate to the forefront – again.  Matthew Wald of the New York Times has a front page story this morning on how Japan's crisis is reviving the fight over Yucca Mountain and nuclear storage.  

Yucca Mountain was first voted on for a nuclear waste site in 1987and has been hotly debated ever since.  In 1987, three states were under consideration for nuclear waste disposal:  Washington, Texas and Nevada.  At that time, Vice President George H W Bush and House Speaker Jim Wright were from Texas, Majority Leader Tom Foley was from Washington, and Harry Reid was a freshman Senator from Nevada.  Not surprisingly, the state of Nevada drew the short card.

Political tides have shifted over the years.  Senator Reid is now the Majority Leader of the Senate.  President, Obama, following up on a 2008 campaign pledge, ordered the Department of Energy to withdraw application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for Nevada to become a waste disposal site.  The President then appointed a Presidential Panel to review and explore nuclear waste disposal, headed by Lee Hamilton, former Member of Congress, and Brent Scowcroft, former National Security Advisor.  Coincidentally, the report is due in a few weeks. 

As my colleague Jake Berliner pointed out from a trip to his alumni Tufts University:

"The abiding lesson that Three Mile Island taught Wall Street was that a group of N.R.C.-licensed reactor operators, as good as any others, could turn a $2 billion asset into a $1 billion cleanup job in about 90 minutes."  Peter Bradford, former Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner

Mr. Bradford makes a good point about this independent Commission.  But these issues aren’t always so cut and dry.  When the Energy Department said in June that it wanted to withdraw its application for Yucca Mountain, a panel of three administrative law judges rejected the idea, which was then appealed to the five member NRC. 

One of the commission members had to recues himself because of earlier work on the Yucca Mountain debate.  The remaining four members seem to be deadlocked on whether the application can be withdrawn. A 2-to-2 vote would fail to override the three-judge panel.  Mr. Jaczko, the commission chairman and a former member of Senator Reid’s staff, has refused to bring the matter to a final vote, leaving it unsettled.

At the House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing last week, Representative John Shimkus, Republican of Illinois, asked Mr. Jaczko why he had suspended the commission’s work.  Mr. Jaczko replied that he had acted within his authority.  Congressman Shimkus countered that this debate was far from being over.

No doubt, there will be further hearings on Yucca Mountain nuclear storage issue.  They will be especially interesting in light of the expected report from the Presidential Panel headed by Lee Hamilton and Brent Scowcroft shortly.