Is less government the key to nuclear waste management?

Is less government the key to nuclear waste management?
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It is now official – the 2019 Energy and Water Appropriations bill that President TrumpDonald John TrumpMichelle Obama says not always easy to live up to "we go high" Georgia certifies elections results in bitterly fought governor's race Trump defends border deployment amid fresh scrutiny MORE signed earlier this month provides no funding for Yucca Mountain. In doing so, it officially extends by another year the U.S. government’s failure to implement a policy established in 1954 that it would be responsible for managing the spent fuel from commercial nuclear reactors.

Many attribute the failure to Nevada politics and the continued objections each year of a single Senator. But this misses the fundamental problem at the core of the stalemate. It is the lack of trust in government and, according to recent polls, the situation is getting worse, not better. The 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer for the U.S. produced the largest-ever-recorded drop in the survey’s history and “a staggering lack of faith in government.” The Pew Research Center had similar results, finding trust in government at “historic lows” with the percentage of Americans reporting that they trust the U.S. government tracking in the low 20s.

Back in the 1950s, when public faith in government was high, a decision to entrust a federal agency with safely managing waste from the country’s commercial nuclear reactors was relatively uncontroversial. Today, the idea is almost unthinkable. In all likelihood, Yucca Mountain will never be approved as the repository for spent reactor fuel, even though the government has already spent $15 billion designing the facility, drilling tunnels and conducting tests.

The result: more than 81,000 metric tons of nuclear waste is now stored at 61 current and former reactor sites scattered across the country. While there has not yet been an environmental accident or security incident, the storage facilities require constant security and were never designed to be more than a temporary solution until the rods were turned over to the U.S. government for long-term disposal.

Although no real progress is being made, the cost to the American taxpayer is growing every year. In over 70 judgements, the courts have ordered the government to pay the utilities’ storage costs dating back to 1998 when the government was supposed to have taken possession. The bill to date is over $6 billion, and the Energy Department estimates the cost to taxpayers will total $29 billion by 2022.

Why is it so difficult to solve this problem? I believe a core element is the catastrophic loss of faith in the government. The State of Nevada and others simply do not trust the U.S. government to do what the law requires or remain consistent in policy from one Administration to the next – critically important for a facility that will take multiple decades to construct. The distrust goes back to 1987 when Congress, not the technical review process set forth in the law, determined that Yucca Mountain would be the only site to undergo full characterization. The legislation is referred to in Nevada as the “Screw Nevada Bill.”

The first step to ending the stalemate is for the Administration and Congress to accept that trust cannot be restored to the process that selected Yucca Mountain. A new “consent-based” process needs to be started that will enable the public, local communities, states and government officials at all levels to trust that the selection and development of a long-term repository site will be done in a fair and transparent manner.

A key question is asking the once-unthinkable: should the U.S. government should have primary responsibility? The Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future recommended shifting the guardianship of waste away from the U.S. Department of Energy to an independent federal agency at least one step removed from the political process. A two-year initiative to “Reset Nuclear Waste Policy” conducted by Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) went even further: recommending that the process be moved to a private corporation or non-profit organization.

As a veteran of almost four decades working in and around government, it pains me to conclude that the government’s role in this matter must be reduced, due to the trust deficit. Restoring trust to the process of developing a long-term repository for the more than 81 thousand metric tons of spent fuel currently in storage at utility sites across the U.S. will not, by itself, guarantee success. But the failure to restore trust is a guarantee that the current political standoff will continue and taxpayers will be forced to pay billions of dollars each year for a temporary solution.

David M. Klaus, former Deputy Under Secretary for Management and Performance at the U.S. Department of Energy, is currently a William Perry Fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) at Stanford University. He is co-leading a project at CISAC on public and policy-maker attitudes to the siting of nuclear waste disposal facilities.