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Future of nation’s nuclear waste buried in deficit

Post by TNT Editorial Board / The News Tribune on Aug. 16, 2011 at 6:55 pm |
August 16, 2011 5:57 pm

This editorial will appear in Wednesday’s print edition.

Any hope of the federal government living up to its obligation to provide a permanent storage site for the nation’s nuclear waste is fast disappearing.

The Obama administration has delivered on the president’s campaign promise to halt construction of the most plausible option, a repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

While the feds mull their options, spent nuclear fuel and other radioactive waste is piling up in 39 states, Washington included.

Last month, a presidential panel suggested farming out the waste to communities hungry for jobs. Never mind the $10.5 billion the nation has already invested in Yucca Mountain – the panel was under orders to not consider the site.

But to Yucca or not to Yucca is only half the question. The other half: Where is the money to pay for long-term storage?

For 20 years, electricity ratepayers have been paying to underwrite the development of a solution. Their contributions, minus expenses and plus interest, stand at $25 billion.

But, as the panel tasked with charting a post-Yucca course pointed out, the money can’t be tapped easily. The reason: Congress has been banking the nuclear waste fees as taxes, example No. 446 of how lawmakers have cooked the books to make deficits look smaller.

Such gimmicks are a big reason why Yucca has been so vulnerable to political gamesmanship. Rolling a swing state is one thing; having to then fill a multibillion-dollar hole in the federal budget makes the act doubly unpalatable.

Now, with the heat on to reconcile the federal balance sheet, pulling that money out of the revenue column will be a nearly impossible sell.

The ugliest truth about the federal deficit isn’t its visible proportions but the lengths to which Congress has gone to hide its true grotesqueness.

Lawmakers continue the charade at taxpayers’ expense. Utilities, which have been forced to improvise temporary storage for nuclear waste the government promised to start taking 13 years ago, want results for their ratepayers’ money.

They have won legal judgments totaling $16.2 billion – and could be due another $500 million a year if the feds don’t have a plan in place by 2020.

The clock is ticking. The nation invested two decades in studying Yucca Mountain, only to scrap it for political reasons. Extricating the money from the federal budget to begin again might take at least that long.

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