President Obama may have undercut his ability to meet his climate change goals by scrapping the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump in Nevada, which his top energy official suggested would slow the growth of zero-emission nuclear power plants.
Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said Wednesday that meeting greenhouse gas emission goals by 2030 will depend on nuclear power plants being included in the energy mix. And that will involve solving the nuclear waste storage problem, which is making it harder for utilities to build new nuclear power plants.
He said the federal government needs to start "sending the signals very soon about how we are going to meet the zero-carbon generation [goal] in 2030, and beyond," which "includes this issue of providing the signal that, yes, you build a nuclear power plant [and] the government will move it away, whether it's to a public or private [facility]," Moniz told a hearing of the Senate Appropriations Committee's energy and water panel.
Although the administration opposes a central storage site being built at Yucca Mountain, Moniz is heading an effort to find an interim storage facility to move the waste being stored at power plants until a permanent site is opened.
Although the administration tried to cancel the Yucca Mountain facility during the president's first term, under heavy pressure from Nevada Democrat Harry Reid, federal judges reversed the move, and the project's license review is limping along at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and, to a lesser extent, at the Energy Department.
Moniz agreed with energy and water subcommittee Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., that the nation should work on all tracks to solve the waste issue, which would include interim storage as well as longer-term permanent sites such as Yucca.
"Absolutely," Moniz said. "Interim storage should have always been part" of the nation's nuclear policy. He said it offers "much more flexibility" in removing waste while reducing federal liability for not taking ownership of it.
The nuclear waste law says the federal government is responsible for moving the waste, and the law stands even though the administration decided to withdraw the license for building the site at Yucca Mountain.
Moniz agreed to push on all available fronts toward a waste solution, despite the Yucca Mountain facility being stalled.
"I certainly agree with you," Moniz said. "For utilities operating power plants, the interest is to have the fuel moved away."
Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the subcommittee, said she has been seeking to move legislation with the help of Alexander on devising an interim waste policy, codifying to some extent what Moniz is doing at the agency level.
But she is losing hope because no hearings have been held on her bill since she introduced it last year and there is limited interest on moving ahead.
She said the House is blocking the creation of an interim waste strategy because of the administration's decision to pull back from Yucca Mountain.
She said Yucca Mountain failed because it was forced on a state that didn't want it. She said opposition in Nevada won't subside, even when Reid retires, so a new waste site has to be found, and the process needs to be voluntary. She said her bill provides for that.