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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning. President Obama's proposed budget contains huge amounts of spending, but not for everything. For example, there is no funding to dispose of the waste from nuclear power plants. The president is keeping a campaign promise by stopping the $8 billion project to prepare Yucca Mountain, Nevada as the country's nuclear waste repository. NPR's Richard Harris reports.

RICHARD HARRIS: The story of Yucca Mountain is actually a saga that has stretched out over three decades. And one of the key players is Senator Harry Reid of Nevada. Sometimes he sounds like a guy who believes that federal government should take precedence over states, like this comment last month about siting electric power lines.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada): 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.

HARRIS: 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. 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. Robert Fri from the think tank Resources for the Future says Nevada's congressional delegation at the time was simply outgunned.

Mr. ROBERT FRI (Resources for the Future): It was not a decision that flew in the face of the tactical considerations at all, but it was certainly a decision that was motivated at least as much by political considerations.

HARRIS: And now the political tables have turned. Harry Reid is the Senate's majority leader and the Yucca Mountain project is if not dead at least moribund.

Robert Fri says this leaves the nuclear waste issue once again in limbo.

Mr. FRI: Yucca Mountain at some point, or something that looks a lot like Yucca Mountain, has got to be done.

HARRIS: Fri says the whole scientific community has agreed for decades that eventually nuclear waste needs to go in a deep hole underground.

Mr. FRI: But it doesn't need to get done right away, and the future of nuclear power, the building of the next few plants, doesn't depend on Yucca Mountain being completed any time soon.

HARRIS: And the Obama administration's decision is hardly a seismic event for the industry. Alex Flint is at the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry's trade group.

Mr. ALEX FLINT (Nuclear Energy Institute): Well, it means in many ways that the current state of play continues.

HARRIS: 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 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.

Mr. FLINT: In many ways we've reduced the urgency of a need to find some other solution to this material. 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.

HARRIS: This is a philosophical shift from the early days of the nuclear industry. Then-President Jimmy Carter assumed that we needed to solve the nuclear waste issue up front in order to put the industry on firm footing. These days the industry is saying now that we have solutions that will suffice for many decades, that's good enough. Anti-nuclear activists like Jim Riccio at Greenpeace aren't buying it.

Mr. JIM RICCIO (Anti-nuclear Activist, Greenpeace): There still is no solution to the problem we've created over 50 years ago. But digging a big hole in the ground and sweeping under a rug wasn't an answer either.

HARRIS: 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, too. Nuclear energy currently supplies 21 percent of the nation's electricity, and the plants do not produce carbon dioxide. So, Robert Fri at Resources for the Future says the environmental arguments about nuclear power are shifting.

Mr. ROBERT FRI (Resources for the Future): Well, I don't think we're in a position to disregard any of the options for dealing with global warming at this point.

HARRIS: And the debate over Yucca Mountain has, in his view, become a bit of a side show.

Richard Harris, NPR News.

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