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Whatever happened to plans to bury U.S. nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain?

Remember the feds' controversial plan to store all of the country's spent nuclear fuel deep inside Yucca Mountain in the Nevada desert some 100 miles (160 kilometers) northwest of Las Vegas? Well it looks like that proposed resting place for the country's nuclear waste has apparently been, well, laid to rest.

When President Obama unveiled his budget last month, he essentially eliminated funding to prepare the site as the nation's nuke graveyard. The scant funds still to be allotted, according to the Las Vegas Sun, will just be enough to allow the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC)—the body responsible for managing civilian nuke power—to hold planned hearings on licensing the facility’s construction.

Even if the NRC gives the green light to Yucca, the dual opposition of Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D–Nev.) likely spell doom for the site. “What happens once we say 'yes' or 'no' is out of our hands,” NRC spokesperson Eliot Brenner told The New York Times. A spokesperson for Energy Secretary Steven Chu recently erased any lingering doubts about the site's future, recently telling Science that her boss has made clear that “Nuclear waste storage at Yucca Mountain is not an option, period.”

Perhaps recognizing this, the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), the Washington, D.C.–based trade organization representing the nuclear industry, has not made a big fuss and has instead called for more study of the matter and an independent commission to advise the president. “The results of an independent commission’s strategic assessment of the overall approach to used fuel and defense waste management can provide direction,” Marvin Fertel, president and CEO of NEI, wrote in an op-ed February 27 in The Energy Daily

The political hot potato has been little more than a money pit since 1987 when Congress and the Department of Energy selected it as the permanent storage facility for up to 70,000 metric tons of waste produced by the nation's nuclear power plants. Taxpayers have subsequently poured nearly $11 billion into the project, including early planning stages—much of it in penalties paid to utilities when the site did not begin accepting shipped waste in 1998 per plan. Closing down the facility before it’s even built, let alone opened may leave the government owing billions of dollars more to utilities who have helped fund its proposed construction, according to The New York Times.

As detailed in ScientificAmerican.com’s recent special report on nuclear power, over its nearly 50-year history, U.S. commercial nuclear reactors have produced some 64,000 metric tons of fuel rods that presently sit in pools of water on-site, cooling for decades, or are sealed up in cement dry casks. While this temporary solution should hold for several decades, finding a long-term plan for storing nuclear power’s dangerous leftovers falls to the energy secretary, who testified before a congressional panel during his confirmation hearing that finding a replacement for Yucca or somehow making it work will take up “a significant part of my time and energy.”

Dry cask storage. Image Credit: NRC

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