Spare the Rods
For two decades, the federal government has pursued a single plan for the nation's used nuclear fuel rods: permanent entombment in a geologic repository. Since 1987, the U.S. Department of Energy has studied a single site, Nevada's Yucca Mountain, for the location of that repository.
But the philosophy behind the Yucca Mountain program fails to grasp that used fuel from commercial reactors is not "waste," but a commodity to be bought and sold in the marketplace. There are many alternatives to burying it beneath Yucca Mountain. The United States could lift its ban on the recycling of spent fuel, and thus allow the material to be used again and again. Policymakers could also allow America's spent fuel rods to be sold to recycling facilities abroad. Transmutation, a process that reduces the radioactivity of nuclear materials, is another largely unexplored option. And with adequate funding, entirely new processes could be developed to make use of used nuclear fuel.
The financial mechanism to create private-sector solutions to the spent-fuel problem already exists: the Nuclear Waste Fund. Customers of nuclear utilities have paid into this account for many years, and while much of the money has been wasted on the Yucca Mountain program, even more remains. If equitably disbursed to the entities now in possession of used nuclear fuel, the fund could cover the costs of alternatives. Auctioning off the federal government's commercial-reactor infrastructure — which the American taxpayer should never have had to pay for in the first place — would make even morefunding available for new approaches to spent nuclear fuel.
Two decades of experience have shown that the federal government is completely incapable of solving the used-nuclear-fuel problem. The Yucca Mountain program has been marked by politics, mismanagement, soaring costs and missed deadlines. It's time to harness the creativity and entrepreneurship of the private sector, and abandon the nation's failed and wasteful nuclear-repository program.