Case Overview, Repository for Spent Nuclear Fuel

This document provides background information and summarizes the debate over a repository for spent nuclear fuel. The links to the left will lead you to public documents that we have found.



          The fuel for nuclear power plants—the atoms that are split—must be disposed of once it has been used. The fuel rods utilized for the nuclear reactions that produce electricity last for about 18 months. Every six months one-third of the fuel rods are removed from the nuclear reactor and put at the bottom of a large swimming pool. The rods are quite literally too hot to handle and they remain submerged for three to five years. At that point they can be moved but they’re still hazardous.

          In 1982 the Congress passed a law providing for a federal repository for nuclear waste by 1998. After considerable study the federal government settled on Yucca Mountain in an isolated part of Nevada where nuclear tests had been conducted years earlier. Not surprisingly, Nevada doesn’t want to be a nuclear waste site and has fought it while the government continues to conduct studies to demonstrate the safety of the proposed repository. The waste that continues to mount is kept at the nuclear power plants themselves, in thick protective casks.



          The leading voice of the nuclear power industry is the Nuclear Energy Institute, a trade association for the individual companies that own the plants. Some of the companies, like Constellation Energy, actively lobby along with their trade group. Until the Bush administration came into power, nuclear waste disposal was a low priority issue for the environmental movement because the Clinton administration had no interest in moving the nuclear waste repository forward. Only two groups, U.S. PIRG and Public Citizen, followed the issue closely. With the election of George Bush in 2000 the issue sprung to life. Soon after taking office Vice President Dick Cheney began to publicly advocate construction of new nuclear power plants. That, in turn, brought a new focus on spent nuclear fuel. Nevada Senator Harry Reid responded to the Cheney proposal by declaring that “Until they get the waste problem solved, nothing’s going to happen on nuclear power.” Reid is the number two leader of the Democrats in the Senate and the most influential member of the Congress on this issue. Andrew Lundquist, an aide to Cheney on energy issues, is another key policymaker, and Karl Rove, President Bush’s top political adviser, has also shown interest in the issue.




          Those who want the waste repository built stress the commitment broken by the federal government in 1982 law. They argue that the government made a promise to the nuclear utilities to solve a problem that the utilities could not solve themselves. They also point out that it costs a lot of money to store the waste on site and it will be more economical to ship it out to one site than to keep building the casks on site. Ironically, the nuclear power industry can’t use what’s possibly the most compelling argument to get the repository built. As one industry spokesman put it, we can’t "go and say, ‘hey look, the spent nuclear fuel is on site at the power plant, 300 yards from the elementary school. Wouldn’t it be safer if we shipped it to Nevada?'"


          Many Americans are implacable foes of nuclear power, believing that the nuclear industry has exaggerated the safety of their plants. Critics point to the serious accident at the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania in 1978 as evidence of how supposedly safe nuclear power plants can endanger us. They’re no less relenting about nuclear waste. One environmental lobbyist noted, “There’s a huge ignorance about nuclear waste. [Enrico] Fermi said ‘don’t build them until you figure out what to do with the waste.’” Congressional opponents are led by the Nevada delegation, who reflect their constituents’ belief that it’s unfair for the nation’s waste to be deposited in Nevada. The legislators argue that the government has not been candid about the safety of storing the waste at Yucca Mountain.


          The greatest impediment to the creation of the Yucca Mountain repository is the opposition of Senate Democrats. Speaking of Yucca Mountain at a fundraiser in Las Vegas, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD) said that “As long as we’re in the majority, it’s dead.” The 98 senators who are not from Nevada are not terribly eager to vote on the issue and would just as soon have it go away. More broadly, Americans remain skeptical of nuclear power and so there is little public pressure for the repository even though it’s needed if the waste is to be removed from the 103 nuclear plants currently in operation. Another problem for supporters is that shortly before the 2000 election, Nevada remained in play with Democrats and Republicans fighting for the state’s four electoral votes. The Democrats began running television commercials saying that once in office, the Republicans would allow the rest of the country to dump their nuclear waste in Nevada. In response Vice Presidential candidate Cheney went there and told Nevadans that, if elected, the Bush administration would let the Environmental Protection Agency set safety standards for any nuclear repository. The EPA would be sure to set much more stringent standards for the facility than the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Cheney’s promise makes it just that more difficult to build the problematic Yucca Mountain repository.



          The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has primary responsibility for the nation’s nuclear power plants and it has done much of the work researching sites and setting specifications. EPA will become highly involved if the administration decides to pursue the Yucca Mountain site after an independent research evaluation is completed. The White House cannot help but be involved and its energy proposal has raised the stakes for the creation of a repository. Although Congress has shown little enthusiasm for the issue, it can choose to stop construction of a nuclear waste disposal by simply failing to fund its construction.


Lobbying Activities and Tactics

          The nuclear utility industry has found a good friend in the Bush administration and they provided substantial campaign contributions to Republicans running in 2000. Leaders of the industry were granted an audience with Karl Rove and Cheney energy aide, Lundquist, has a friendly attitude toward it. They have lobbied the Congress for years but have found it frustrating since their friends in the House and the Senate haven’t been able to move the rest of the Congress to push the Yucca Mountain repository forward. The industry has done plenty of public relations lauding the safety of nuclear power plants but it’s not clear that it’s done any good as Americans don’t want new plants built anywhere near where they live.

          Environmental groups don’t have a well-designed strategy for stopping the Yucca Mountain facility; since it didn’t appear to be going anywhere it wasn’t a priority. One environmental leader said, "[People ask] what’s your solution? I have to tell congressman I don’t have a solution. We only play defense." Environmentalists have assumed that Congress won’t enact what one activist called "the screw Nevada policy." The administration’s enthusiasm for nuclear energy has been a wake-up call, and environmental groups have mobilized against the broad Bush energy plan. Still, most of the environmentalists’ emphasis has been on stopping expanded drilling for oil and gas and not on nuclear power.