No easy answer to nuclear waste

John McCain may live to regret scoffing at Barack Obama’s suggestion that we should make sure we can safely dispose of radioactive waste before we rush out and start building new nuclear power plants: this week, a series of new proposed rulings from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission underscored just how difficult - technologically and politically - the storage of nuclear waste can be.

The rulings focus on the proposed deadline for completing the controversial Yucca Mountain nuclear-waste depository. In 1984, the Department of Energy said it would build the nuclear storage site by 1998, followed by a second depository in 2004. When that proved impossible, the deadline was shifted to sometime between 2007 and 2009; then to 2010; then to a loose projection that the site would be up and running "sometime in the first quarter of the 21st century".

Now the NRC wants to scrap the 2025 deadline too, preferring instead sketch out a vague timeline for bringing the nuclear storage site online within 50 to 60 years of the point when America’s nuclear plants cease functioning. The commission says that’s reasonable because decommissioned nuclear plants could safely store radioactive waste on-site for "at least" 60 years; that may be the case, but it’s worth noting that until recently the NRC was using a 30-year estimate for safe on-site storage of nuclear materials.

The NRC says its revised timeline isn’t intended to indicate doubts about the feasibility of bringing the Yucca Mountain depository online in a timely manner. Still, the group’s hemming and hawing - which follows on the heels of a row over the radiation safety standards to applied at the site - is a reminder of the difficulties associated with creating a national nuclear dump less than 100 miles from Las Vegas.

That makes John McCain’s decision to laugh off the problem of nuclear-waste storage looks even stranger. His nuclear cheerleading at this week’s debate didn’t play well with undecided voters, at least according to CNN’s focus-group ticker; and his longstanding support for the Yucca Mountain storage facility isn’t doing him any favors in Nevada, where 58 percent of residents oppose the project.

Nuclear power may well have a part, and even a substantial part, to play in America’s energy portfolio as we wean ourselves from fossil fuels. But it’s essential that, as we move forward, we take the time to figure out how we’ll solve the specific problems an expanded nuclear industry would bring. As the NRC’s latest bout of foot-shuffling demonstrates, there are no easy answers when it comes to radioactive waste.

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