The continuing nuclear crisis in Japan (pushed off the front pages by Libya, but still incredibly dangerous) has laid bare another national policy failure here at home -- where to store nuclear waste being generated by our over 100 nuclear reactors.
I am hardly a nuclear expert, but as I understand it, the threat posed by the storage tanks for the spent nuclear fuel at the Fukushima plant pose the most substantial threat in Japan at the moment. Unlike the fuel in the reactors, which is encased in massive containment vessels, the spent fuel rods have much less protection and, if they overheat and catch on fire, can spew highly toxic radioactive elements into the environment.
In 1987, Congress selected a volcanic ridge in Nevada -- Yucca Mountain -- as the site for a long term underground storage facility. Although there has been strong bipartisan support for building the facility over the past two decades, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has fought it bitterly. In the 2008 presidential campaign, candidate Obama pledged to kill the project. Making good on that promise, his budget contains no funding to move forward with it, and he instructed the Department of Energy to withdraw the required application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (an action held invalid by in an opinion by a panel of administrative law judges). The chairman of the commission, a former Reid staffer, has suspended work on evaluating the technical merits of the site.
This is Gridlock of another kind -- not one caused by partisanship, but by the exercise of power by a single senator and presidential politics in an early caucus state.
We have no viable alternative to Yucca Mountain. Until it is built, spent fuel is being stored in facilities at each nuclear site spread across the county. While these sites have been made more secure since 9/11, they present multiple forms of risk, as the Japanese earthquake and tsunami have made abundantly clear. Yucca Mountain poses risks too, as it has been determined that water flows through cracks in the mountain that could lead to leakage. But at some point, we need to weigh the relative risks of the various alternatives and create a national policy for storage of this material.
This is a problem that has been simmering for a quarter century, but our political system has been unable to produce an adequate resolution.