American nuclear power plants produce a lot of radioactive waste, more than 2,000 tons each year, and there’s a lot of controversy over where to put it.
For now, it's spread out in temporary storage casks at about 70 sites across the country, but the Trump administration is eyeing a site in Nevada as a permanent solution.
The U.S. Department of Energy decided in 1987 that the best place to put the waste is inside a mountain in the Nevada desert, about 100 miles from Las Vegas. But that project — the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository — has been tied up in permitting red-tape and politics, as Nevada’s elected leaders have aimed to protect their state from catastrophe if something goes wrong. Pressured by powerful then-U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, the Obama administration stopped funding for the Yucca Mountain project’s license in 2010.
But Reid is gone. And President Trump’s Department of Energy has expressed interest in restarting research and development at Yucca Mountain. Seeing an opening, Illinois Republican Rep. John Shimkus, chair of the Environment Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has plowed ahead with a bill passed through the House that would bring Yucca Mountain much closer to opening its doors.
But another Nevada senator is standing in the way. This time, it’s U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, a Republican, who has pledged that Nevada will never be the nation’s nuclear waste dumping ground.
“Under my watch, I will not let one more hard-earned taxpayer dollar go toward this failed project,” Heller said in a statement this spring. “Yucca Mountain is dead; it is that simple.”
In a Washington rarity, something trumped partisanship: geography. Illinois has more nuclear waste than any other state, and Shimkus is prepared to fire on members of his own party if it means winning the fight to get nuclear waste out.
“When it was Obama and Reid, I could do some righteous anger, partisan-wise,” Shimkus said. “But now it’s [Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell and [Republican House Speaker] Paul Ryan."
Without a permanent solution for storing nuclear waste -- which is dangerous some 10,000 years after it’s considered spent fuel -- the nuclear plants themselves store the waste onsite, in so-called concrete “casks,” arranged on the edges of properties. That spent nuclear fuel is piled up in more than 80 locations across the country.
At a nuclear power plant outside Rockford, Illinois, Shimkus said his state of 13 million people shouldn’t bear the risk of radioactive waste.
“If [casks] stay here, they'll stay here forever,” Shimkus said from the Byron Generating Station, about 100 miles from Chicago. “And the nuclear regulatory commission says these [casks] are safe.
“But it's only safe for about 40 or 50 years. Let's find a permanent repository. If completed, Yucca Mountain will be safe for this type of storage for a million years.”