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Politics shouldn't drive Yucca Mountain decision

Politics shouldn't drive Yucca Mountain decision

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July 26 Daily News editorial

Sen. Patty Murray this past week pushed back hard against the Obama administration's attempt to permanently abandon work on the nuclear waste repository near Nevada's Yucca Mountain. On Tuesday, the Washington Democrat offered an amendment to reinstate funding needed to obtain a license for the Yucca Mountain facility. The amendment was rejected on Thursday by her Democratic colleagues on the Senate Energy and Water Appropriations Committee.

The Obama administration and those congressional Democrats steadfastly supporting its politically inspired decision to abandon more than 30 years of careful research and hard work ought to be feeling a keen sense of embarrassment.

When Sen. Murray questioned Energy Secretary Steven Chu about the scientific basis for abandoning the Nevada repository during a subcommittee hearing in March, Chu could cite none. That, of course, is because there is no science to support the Obama administration's claim that Yucca Mountain is not a "workable option" for storage of the nation's nuclear waste. The science says just the opposite.

Political expediency has guided the president's hand on this issue from the time he began his 2008 campaign for the presidency. Then it was the political prize of Nevada voters, who mostly oppose having the nation's nuclear waste dump in their backyard. Since taking office, it's been maintaining a Democratic majority in the Senate. More specifically, it's been about aiding the re-election bid of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who has long vowed to derail the Yucca Mountain project.

But unilaterally abandoning the project is proving a bit more difficult than the administration anticipated, thanks to a not-so-politically motivated Nuclear Regulatory Commission. In late June, an NRC legal panel handed the administration another embarrassment by refusing to go along with its directive to halt the permitting process. The panel ruled that the administration had overstepped its authority. It noted that Congress had determined Yucca Mountain to be the best location for the nuclear repository and initiated work there. Accordingly, only Congress can shut down the project.

The Obama administration and Reid can continue to deny the funding needed to move the project forward, of course. They do so, however, at considerable expense to the national interest in having this nuclear stored at one, secure location — and to all American taxpayers.

Aside from the billions of dollars already spent on the project, there are mounting legal damages for having failed to take possession of the nuclear waste, as promised. The federal government made a legally binding promise to take ownership of nuclear waste accumulating at commercial utilities around the nation. The contract called for the government to begin accepting shipments of radioactive waste by 1998. Missing that deadline already has cost U.S. taxpayers several hundred millions of dollars in legal damages. By some estimates, abandoning the project, altogether, would leave taxpayers on the hook for up to $60 billion.

That's an awfully high cost for a relative handful of electoral votes and the still uncertain re-election of Harry Reid.


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