Americans know their nation is facing many disquieting problems: high unemployment, a government debt spiraling out of control, and a recently downgraded credit rating, to name but a few.
Here's another problem that most likely have never heard of: America’s utter lack of a plan for storing radioactive nuclear waste. Though it may not be making headlines, it's another drag on industry and an obstacle to solving the nation’s energy challenges.
In April, the Obama administration halted the development of the planned Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, leaving the United States without any long-term storage site for radioactive waste. But the root of the problem goes back farther, to 1982, when the Nuclear Waste Policy Act put the federal government in charge of managing nuclear waste.
This was the beginning of the Yucca Mountain project, intended to serve as the national storage site for spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste. Despite collecting nearly $38.5 billion from electricity consumers and spending nearly $15 billion on research, the federal government has still not collected one atom of nuclear waste.
Without the Yucca Mountain project under way, it is unclear when—if at all—the government will take responsibility for collecting nuclear waste. The government’s inability to fulfill its legal obligations is a major obstacle in moving nuclear energy forward. Government failure to manage nuclear waste threatens the future of a reliable, emission-free, low-cost energy source. Simply put, America’s strategy of relying on government to manage nuclear waste has failed.
Luckily, for this problem at least, there's a solution. The United States needs to privatize its commercial nuclear waste management. Federal regulators at the Environmental Protection Agency and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission should continue to exercise oversight and set rules to protect public health and safety. But, there should be no role for the government in planning or paying for the disposal of commercial nuclear waste.
As Jack Spencer, research fellow in nuclear policy at the Heritage Foundation explains, private firms already operate all aspects of nuclear power stations except waste disposal. These companies enrich fuel, transport uranium to the site, build plants, and oversee the operation of the fuel reactors – but the government alone is in charge of dealing with nuclear waste.