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The Crushing Cost Of Nuclear Waste Is Weighing On Taxpayers

Haley Zaremba

“The Maine Yankee nuclear power plant hasn’t produced a single watt of energy in more than two decades, but it cost U.S. taxpayers about $35 million this year.” So begins a powerful report this week about the crushing cost of nuclear waste storage by the Los Angeles Times.

Nuclear waste has always been a contentious topic in the United States, and the issue has a particularly long history of litigation and protest in the country, from the anti-nuclear movement of the 1960s to the major outcry over the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository approved for construction in 2002 under George W. Bush and later de-funded in 2011 under the Obama administration. Even though nuclear power remains controversial, the United States is nevertheless the largest nuclear power generator in the world, producing a whopping 30 percent of global nuclear energy supplies.

“About 80,000 metric tons of nuclear waste have been stored at 72 private locations across the nation, enough to cover a football field to a depth of about 66 feet, according to the Government Accountability Office. Most are at operating plants, incorporated into the plant’s daily activities, but 17 are at closed facilities, with seven at sites — including Maine — where the plant itself has been demolished,” says the LA Times. “In those cases, only the storage casks remain, and keeping them monitored and protected as they get older can be an expensive operation.”

For the first 40 years of nuclear power production in the United States, there were no federal regulations on how the industry should operate or dispose of its dangerously radioactive byproducts. Before the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, private companies in the U.S. were responsible for their own clean-up and storage of spent nuclear fuel, quickly running out of storage space. However, those private companies were not sufficiently equipped to store their waste long-term, as some kinds of nuclear waste have a half-life (meaning the amount of time they remain radioactive) of up to 17 million years. Congress decided that going forward the burden of responsibility would lie with the United States government, putting the massive cost of cleanup on the shoulders of U.S. taxpayers.

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Now, that price tag has reached a whopping $7.5 billion, and that number is only going to keep growing.

As the United States has scrapped the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository for the time being, there is still no simple solution for ongoing nuclear waste management. “With no place of its own to keep the waste, the government now says it expects to pay $35.5 billion to private companies as more and more nuclear plants shut down, unable to compete with cheaper natural gas and renewable energy sources,” reports the LA Times. “Storing spent fuel at an operating plant with staff and technology on hand can cost $300,000 a year. The price for a closed facility: more than $8 million.”

In the United States, where the nuclear industry is ailing, this is particularly bad news. More plants are shutting down than are going online, and many of the nuclear plants that are continuing to function are able to do so in large part thanks to government subsidies at the state level, which is to say, even more taxpayer dollars.

The Trump administration, for its part, has made efforts to combat the rising prices of nuclear waste storage--albeit extremely controversial ones. Just this month, “in a move that will roll back safety standards that have been observed for decades” says not-for-profit news organization Truthout, “the Trump administration reportedly has plans to reclassify nuclear waste previously listed as “high-level” radioactive to a lower level, in the interest of saving money and time when disposing of the material.”

While this may be a quick fix for the massive amounts of money flowing out of taxpayer pockets and into the nuclear energy industry, it’s certainly not a sustainable solution for what could easily become a national health crisis if mismanaged. What’s more, the United States nuclear industry may not stay struggling forever--it could easily make a comeback as national attitudes change about the benefits of nuclear and the downsides of fossil fuels. In fact, the United States has enough Uranium domestically to power the country for hundreds of years into the future.

By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com

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