Nuke Waste: Same Old Same Old, Won’t Work Won’t Work

By Kennedy Maize

Washington, D.C., April 29, 2013 – Last week, a bipartisan group of Senators, all of them mired in a failed paradigm, proposed a solution to the nation’s long-festering problem of what to do with what comes out of the back end of nuclear power plants. It’s nasty stuff, that’s for sure.

But the proposal the solons have come up with comes up short: a new federal agency to do what the Energy Department and predecessors have failed to do for over 60 years. It reminds me of that old saw: “A rut is a grave with the ends kicked out.”

The current tepid idea from Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) seems to be, if you can’t figure out what do to, create a new federal agency and tell them to figure out what to do. Is this some sort of elitist crowd sourcing? Only, the crowd will be very small, and very predictable. In-crowd sourcing?

This latest round of hand-wringing has its origins in the Obama administration’s “blue ribbon commission,” created in 2009 to divert attention from the entirely worthy decision to end the Yucca Mountain fiasco (you can read more about that and earlier nuclear waste failures in my 2012 book “Too Dumb to Meter, Follies, Fiascoes, Dead Ends and Duds on the U.S. Road to Nuclear Energy”). The Obama commission, the sole achievement of which seems to be the installation of geologist Allison Macfarlane as chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, was a classic example of Washington-work: let’s assemble all the conventional thinkers and clap loudly when they produce conventional wisdom, then go home.

Maybe there isn’t a solution, other than “don’t do anything?” Could “energy policy” be a model? Over the past five decades, politicians, policy wonks and pundits (I must confess that I was among them) were saying, “The U.S. needs an energy policy.” Well, it turns out we had one, and it was, in the words of Ronald Reagan (don’t get me wrong, I’m a Democrat), “Stand there, just don’t do something.” How irresponsible was that?

It worked. Ronnie was right (not just far right). Today, we’ve got energy by the tail, and are reducing carbon dioxide emissions (for those who care) as well as reducing imports and producing electricity at lower cost to average folks. The Euros are wringing their hands in despair. How sweet it is.

Maybe the same approach — call it deliberate ad hocery — works for nuclear waste? Don’t just do something. Stand there. Let spent fuel sit (assuming it is safe), and let the utilities that generated it and their customers who benefited from cheaper power pay the price for managing it. Keep the costs where they belong, not spread to the innocent.

The notion that taxpayers should own civilian nuclear waste generated from plants owned by private sector actors is an artifact of the early days of the nuclear endeavor. The first waste problem – and it remains as probably the worst – was what to do with the nasty gunk from the government’s weapons program. That this spawned a government approach is understandable.

But it doesn’t make sense to apply the same approach to commercial reactor waste. Government policy should not shove the cost of disposal onto all “nuclear” consumers through a gigantic federal program that uses the nuclear tax to develop a federal spent fuel graveyard. That’s the thrust of the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which the “small government” conservatives now seem to embrace uncritically and which has failed completely.

The problem with the waste fee on “nuclear” consumers is that it gets spread to all consumers. It isn’t confined to consumers of electricity from atomic power plants but flows to all customers of a utility that has nuclear, fossil, wind, solar, or squirrel-cage generation. That’s particularly the case where commerce in electricity is through organized markets, such as PJM, ISO, NYISO, ISO-NE, and ERCOT.

Those who most directly benefited from nuclear electricity are nuclear utilities and shareholders. So government policy should allocate the costs of waste disposal onto the utilities and their investors who benefit. It doesn’t make sense to externalize the costs of nuclear cleanup when the damage can be properly internalized.

Claiming that nuke waste disposal is a social cost to be loaded onto all consumers of atomic electrons (as if those distinctions can really be made) is foolish. These costs belong to the generator. Why not make the same claim for disposal of coal ash for electric generating plants?

So here I stand, opposed to a gigantic bailout of the failed Nuke Waste Policy Act of 1982 by compounding the errors it created. It was bad law in 1982, grounded on faulty thinking about the problem. Nothing on the current policy or legislative agenda appears to recognize that.

I suspect my arguments will be ignored by conventional Democrats, who wish to treat nuclear waste as a social cost to be spread to all consumers of electricity, and by blinkered Republicans, who seem to believe that anything radioactive is worthy of federal government (and taxpayer) subsidy, particularly if it benefits investors.

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