President Obama's proposed budget is famous for the huge amounts of spending it includes. But also notable is what's missing: There's no funding to dispose of the waste from the nation's nuclear power plants.
In keeping with a campaign promise, the president has stopped the $8 billion project to prepare Yucca Mountain in Nevada as the nation's nuclear waste repository.
The saga over nuclear waste disposal stretched out over nearly three decades. And one of the key players is Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada. Sometimes, he sounds like a man who believes the federal government should take precedence over states.
Last month, for example, in a discussion about siting electric power lines, he said, "We're going to move beyond one state being able to hold up forever something that needs to be done for the rest of the country."
Those words earned Reid a few quiet guffaws, considering they come from a man who has argued that Nevada has the right to kill the nation's nuclear waste plans.
The Politics Of Waste
To be sure, Nevada got a raw deal back in the early 1980s, when Congress chose Yucca Mountain as the nation's nuclear waste repository. Nevada's congressional delegation at the time was simply outgunned.
"It was not a decision that flew in the face of the technical considerations at all, but it was certainly a decision that was at the end of the day motivated at least as much by political considerations," says Robert Fri from the think tank Resources For the Future.
And now the political tables have turned. Reid is the Senate's majority leader. And the Yucca Mountain project is, if not dead, at least moribund. Fri says this leaves the nuclear waste issue, once again, in limbo.
"Yucca Mountain, at some point — or something that looks a lot like Yucca Mountain — has got to be done."
Fri says the whole scientific community has agreed for decades that eventually nuclear waste needs to go in a deep hole underground.
"But it doesn't need to get done right away, and the future of nuclear power — the building of the next few plants — does not depend on Yucca Mountain being completed any time soon."
Business As Usual?
And the Obama administration's decision is hardly a seismic event for the industry.
"It means in many ways that the current state of play continues," says Alex Flint, of the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry's trade group.
That means electricity customers will continue paying into a nuclear waste fund, which has already collected $22 billion. It also means that the U.S. government is not taking nuclear waste off the hands of the nuclear industry, as it has promised to do. Instead, Flint says plants have found ways to store their own waste in pools of water, and in dry concrete casks on the ground.
"In many ways, we've reduced the urgency of a need to find some other solution for this material," Flint says. "We can definitely deal with this material for decades or hundreds of years. It would be ideal to come up with some eventual disposition proposal in this regard, but we have a lot of time to figure that out."
Anti-Nuclear Activists Push For Science-Based Solution
This is a philosophical shift from the early days of the nuclear industry. Then, President Jimmy Carter and others assumed that we needed to solve the nuclear waste issue up front in order to put the industry on firm footing. Now, the industry is saying that since we now have solutions that will suffice for many decades, that's good enough. Anti-nuclear activists aren't buying it.
"There still is no solution to the problem we created over 50 years ago, but digging a big hole in the ground and sweeping it under the rug wasn't an answer either," says Jim Riccio at Greenpeace.
Riccio says the waste will eventually have to go somewhere.
"Finding a reasonable place to find the ways will again be a political process, but hopefully this time it will be based on science and not just the fact that Nevada didn't have as many votes in Congress."
The Energy Department plans to assemble a committee to review these issues this year. It has a big challenge, as it attempts to deal with not only the question of nuclear waste, but global warming, as well. Nuclear energy currently supplies 21 percent of the nation's electricity, and the plants do not produce carbon dioxide. So the environmental arguments about nuclear power are shifting, says Fri.
"I don't think we're in a position to disregard any of the options for dealing with global warming at this point."
And the debate over Yucca Mountain has, in his view, become a bit of a sideshow.