11.05.10

Obama's $40 Billion Man

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s midterm election victory comes with a hefty price tag, argues Robert Bryce, thanks to the president's plan for storing nuclear waste.

Majority Leader Harry Reid beat GOP challenger Sharron Angle on Tuesday, helping assure Democratic control of the Senate for the next two years. Unfortunately for U.S. taxpayers, Reid's victory comes with a $40 billion bill—all of it related to his dogged opposition to storing nuclear waste in Nevada.

Last year, the Obama administration—bowing to pressure from the Nevada pol—decimated funding for the nuclear waste disposal site at Yucca Mountain and said officials would begin looking for other sites to take the waste.

But by abandoning the Yucca Mountain project, Obama has assured that taxpayers will be billed for the storage and disposal of America's nuclear waste three times.

The original, and biggest bill (so far) for the disposal of U.S. nuclear waste comes from the Yucca Mountain project itself, one of the longest-running federal works programs in U.S. history. Over the past three decades, the government has spent about $13.5 billion of taxpayers money researching and developing the site at Yucca Mountain. The site, which is ready for use and only awaits licensing from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, could store the 70,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel that is now spread among 80 locations in 35 states. Reid's NIMBY posturing makes for handy politics in Nevada, but it mocks a two-decade-old federal law which requires the federal government to take possession of the high-level waste produced by the country's nuclear power plants.

The second bill to taxpayers for Reid's obstructionism stems from lawsuits from electric utilities who are successfully suing the federal government for not taking the radioactive waste. Last year, the Government Accountability Office estimated that the litigation will cost "taxpayers about $12.3 billion in damages through 2020 and could cost $500 million per year after 2020."

In his praise for nuclear, the president sounds a lot like a... Republican.

The final Reid-related invoice relates to the costs of finding and developing a new location for the waste that was supposed to end up at Yucca Mountain. When the Obama administration cut funding for Yucca Mountain, it appointed the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future. That panel was given two years to study alternatives to the Nevada site and to issue a report on the best alternatives. Where will that site (or sites) be? No one knows. But we can assume that the development costs for the new location will probably be on the same order of magnitude as those for Yucca Mountain. For this exercise, let's assume those costs will be $15 billion.

Let's tally the billions: $13.5 + $12.3 + $15 = $40.8 billion.

Reid's years-long opposition to Yucca Mountain is indicative of the split between the Republicans and the Democrats over nuclear power—the only source of energy that can provide large increments of reliable, carbon-free electricity in a relatively short time frame, at a relatively agreeable cost. (The key word in the previous sentence, obviously, is "relatively.")

Obama has acknowledged that nuclear must be part of the solution if the U.S. is to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions. In an April 2009 speech in Prague, he said, "We must harness the power of nuclear energy on behalf of our efforts to combat climate change." In his praise for nuclear, the president sounds a lot like a…Republican.

How Harry Reid Pulled It OffIn its 2008 political platform, the GOP called nuclear energy the "most reliable zero-carbon-emissions source of energy that we have." The document continued, saying that "unwarranted fear mongering" has prevented the U.S. from starting a new reactor project for more than three decades.

Meanwhile, in their 2008 political platform, the Democrats used the phrase "nuclear power" exactly one time—and it refers only to the spread of nuclear weapons. The platform purposely, erroneously, conflates the development of nuclear energy with nuclear proliferation and warns of the dangers of countries like Iran and North Korea obtaining nuclear weapons. The Democratic platform clearly bears Reid's imprint, stating, "We will protect Nevada and its communities from the high-level nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain, which has not been proven to be safe by sound science."

The Democratic-Republican split on nuclear power shows just how schizophrenic America's energy politics have become. Recall that it was just 16 months ago that the Democratic majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, narrowly passed a pork-laden cap-and-trade bill that was supposed to cut America's carbon dioxide emissions, we were told, by 80 percent by 2050. But when it comes to nuclear power—which effectively reduces U.S. carbon dioxide emissions by about 650 million tons per year, fully 10 percent of total U.S. emissions—the Democratic Party remains married to the extremist positions of groups like Greenpeace and the Sierra Club, which oppose nuclear with Shiite-like religiosity.

Democratic opposition means that Congress remains gridlocked over the relatively straightforward matter of handling 70,000 tons of radioactive waste. It's truly astounding and more than a little depressing: For more than three decades, America—a country that has sent humans to the Moon and robots to Mars—has failed to come up with a solution for a mass of material which, if collected in one location, could be stacked onto a single football field to a height of about 15 feet.

Unfortunately, Harry Reid's victory, which came with a big assist from the Obamas, who both campaigned for him, means continued nuclear gridlock. And for that, taxpayers will be writing big checks for decades to come.

Robert Bryce, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, recently published his fourth book, Power Hungry: The Myths of "Green" Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future .