COLUMN: Moving Forward on the Nation’s Nuclear Waste Management

April 16, 2015
Weekly Column and Op-Ed
By Rep. Dan Newhouse

Washingtonians are familiar with the key role that the Hanford site played in the defense of our nation during World War II and the Cold War as a component of the Manhattan Project. The legacy of the federal government’s work at Hanford left behind 56 million gallons of radioactive and chemical waste in 177 underground tanks. Progress on moving the high-level nuclear waste to permanent storage has needlessly stalled due to the Obama Administration’s attempts to shut down Yucca Mountain.

Earlier this month, I joined a bipartisan congressional tour of Yucca to see the site firsthand. Under the law, Yucca is the nation’s permanent nuclear repository. Deep beneath the mountain in a remote desert about 100 miles from Las Vegas lies what has been referred to as ‘the most studied real estate on earth.’ The Yucca facility may seem like just a dusty, five-mile tunnel bored 1,000 feet deep, but what I saw was impressive and full of potential. The federal government has spent $15 billion over decades preparing the site as the nation’s sole permanent nuclear repository. Yucca has been deemed safe by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). The NRC’s recent safety evaluation found that the site could safely isolate spent nuclear fuel for 1 million years.

Moving forward on waste storage requires a permanent national repository for the nation’s nuclear waste. Currently, Hanford is scheduled to ship more defense nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain than any other site in the country. In fact, the plan for the waste at Hanford is to produce glass logs to meet the geological specifications of Yucca. The process of nuclear waste “glassification” conducted at Hanford is extremely complex and expensive. I have seen Hanford cleanup progress firsthand, and it is crucial not to risk losing the long-term investments that have already been made there. We cannot afford to restart the search for another repository, which would take decades and cost taxpayers tens of billions more.

Not only does Central Washington continue to store the legacy waste of Hanford, but it is also home to the only nuclear power plant in the Pacific Northwest. Communities that currently host nuclear sites across the country also need a long-term solution to store radioactive spent fuel.

What is standing in the way of making progress on the nation’s nuclear waste management? Certainly not the science, and certainly not the lack of a suitable site. One key aspect of this month’s congressional oversight tour was to examine the Obama Administration’s attempts to illegally terminate the project. The administration’s efforts to circumvent Yucca are contrary to Congress’ repeated affirmations that Yucca is the lawful repository.

I am committed to ensuring that the federal government meets its moral and legal obligation to continue environmental cleanup efforts at Hanford. The prospect that Yucca could stand as a monument to billions of dollars in government waste instead of being the solution we were promised should be of concern for every American. Forward thinking and common sense can solve the nation’s nuclear waste storage problem, and Yucca is part of that solution.