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Making use out of our nuclear waste
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With the Japanese nuclear crisis almost under control, a clear lesson for Americans is that storing waste on site is a bad idea. It is my hope that the management of nuclear waste here in the United States becomes front and center in the debate-not the generation of nuclear power itself. In fact, I believe it’s time to for Congress to repeal its decision to allow the government to manage the waste disposal process.

  As I was graduating from the University of Georgia in 1982, the U.S. Congress was establishing the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. The lawmakers looked way ahead and set Jan. 31, 1998, as the deadline for the federal government to begin picking up our nuclear “trash.” More than a decade has come and gone and little has been done-in fact, we have gone backwards in some ways.

Our first step backwards is the fact that our consumers are being charged twice for waste storage.  The federal government is still getting their percentage off every kilowatt of power generated at our four nuclear reactors, and the plant operators are recovering their cost of on-site storage. The fact that the public is not aware of this double charge is baffling to me, and I hope our congressional delegation will begin to bang the drum on this issue in the near future.  Georgians have contributed $1.324 billion into this fund so far.

The second step backwards was the President’s decision to pull the plug on the Yucca Mountain geologic repository. Yucca Mountain was not just any ole piece of real estate. It was the perfect location for nuclear waste. Yucca is owned by the Department of Energy, very isolated, extremely stable and sits on the edge of the Nevada Testing Area. While I wish the government would take the waste to the partially completed Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada as promised, we’d need multiple repositories by the turn of century to house all the waste we’re producing, according to Phillip J. Finck of the Argonne National Laboratory. So what are we to do?

For those of us who favor the recycling of nuclear fuel, hopefully we see that the government’s pledge has removed any incentive for power-generating companies to develop better ways to manage their waste. That better way is recycling or reprocessing what we can, and permanently disposing the remainder in a place like Yucca Mountain. But instead, our fuel sits, just like Japan’s spent fuel, as a liability.

I think Heritage Foundation scholar Jack Spencer has a good idea. In his testimony to President Obama’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, he argued that our current approach to managing used nuclear fuel is broken. The government promised to take title to the used fuel and dispose of it. It did not. Spencer’s plan would include some federal oversight, with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency playing a role. But his plan also injects market forces into the process and empowers the private sector to manage the waste. And obviously, not just any company is qualified to do this.

Under Spencer’s plan, nuclear-fuel recycling would become profitable. Areva, a French company, has proved it can be profitable in France. In fact, I visited with Areva staff recently in Charlotte and they are preparing a proposal worth around $20 billion to reprocess about 25 percent of America’s nuclear waste. Stay tuned.

At the end of the day, taking the responsibility for waste management away from the government would put the entire process of nuclear power generation in private hands:  enrichment of the fuel, transportation of uranium to the site, fabrication of the plant, operation of the reactors and, finally, management of the waste. Once this happens, operators will have incentives to deal with the waste in a cost-effective way instead of simply paying the government a fee, which has been, well, wasted so far.

What we do with our nuclear waste is one of the most important issues in our day.  Hopefully, the Japanese situation will awaken Congress to take action. Maybe then we can get nuclear waste management out of the hands of government bureaucrats and allow some of the brightest minds in the world to come up with a better plan.

Tim Echols is a member of the Georgia Public Service Commission. The above view does not necessarily reflect the position of the entire PSC.