You’ve seen yucca before. Walk over most any beach access around Charleston, and the spiky cactus-like plant grows plentifully in the dunes, pricking anyone foolish enough to brush against its needle-like extremities.
That very same plant grows abundantly across the American west, and Nevada’s Yucca Mountain is covered in it. What it doesn’t have in large supply is nuclear waste. And, after a decade’s worth of delays, President Barack Obama’s 2011 budget suggests that won’t change anytime soon. The new budget zeroes out the site’s funding, even though taxpayers have spent $10 billion to develop the site as a national nuclear waste depository.
This is bad news for South Carolina. The state currently stores 3,610 metric tons of spent uranium, more than all but two other states, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute, the policy arm of the nuclear industry. Moreover, the Palmetto State has contributed $1.2 billion toward the Nuclear Waste Fund that will pay for the Yucca Mountain dump. With that investment potentially lost if the Yucca project dies, Gov. Mark Sanford announced last week that the state would pursue legal action against the federal government to recover that money if the president doesn’t reverse his decision by the end of February.
Sanford’s Feb. 16 proclamation came on the same day as an announcement by Obama that the federal government would guarantee loans for two new nuclear power plants along the Savannah River in Georgia, a move the Sanford administration supports.
“The governor has been supportive of nuclear power throughout his career,” says governor’s office spokesman Benjamin Fox of the announcements. “Our state ranks near the top for our percentage of power provided by nuclear, and we obviously encourage more of that.”
Fox says that the governor applauds Obama’s support of new plants, especially with four new reactors proposed in S.C.
Our state’s nuclear power plants currently store their waste; 30 million gallons of waste are also kept at the Savannah River Site (SRS), a nuclear processing facility near Aiken focused primarily these days on clean-up. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) counts SRS, where plutonium has contaminated the groundwater, as one of the four sites nationwide most in need of a clean-up. The DOE also calls it the greatest environmental risk to our state.
Sanford’s announcement easily found allies in the state, even gaining the support of The Post and Courier‘s editorial board, which called last week for those concerned to speak out in support of the consolidated Yucca Mountain site.
Republican Congressman and gubernatorial candidate Gresham Barrett issued a press release supporting Sanford’s legal threat. He also said Obama should change his motto of hope and change to “Promises Made. Promises Broken.” Barrett also points to the $1.2 billion the state has spent on Yucca.
“Thanks to the President’s broken promise, now it is all for naught,” writes Barrett. “In the real world, if you pay for something and don’t get it, then there are real consequences.”
During the 2008 presidential race, Obama campaigned against the Yucca Mountain project, calling for the cessation of funding. Sanford and Barrett say that stance panders to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, who faces a tough reelection challenge this year in a state where opposition to Yucca Mountain is bipartisan.
“Almost 30 years ago, the federal government promised taxpayers in S.C. and across the country that Yucca Mountain would be the permanent storage site for nuclear waste,” says Barrett. “Now, with one fell swoop, President Obama is breaking that promise to save Senator Reid’s hide.”
Reid spokesman Jon Summers sees the decision as a promise kept, and lauds Obama for ending Yucca’s funding “in a timely manner, well before Sen. Reid’s reelection.”
But Barrett’s accusations may have some legal backing. The law establishing the Yucca Mountain project and the Nuclear Waste Fund says the federal government is responsible for removing waste from power plants, and power companies have already received settlement funds in lawsuits over their continued storage of waste. The fund had collected $10 billion for Yucca Mountain as of last March, money that could be returned to state government coffers if lawsuits like Sanford’s are successful.
Amidst the bickering, anti-nuclear power activists find themselves frustrated with members of both political parties. Tom Clements, the southeastern nuclear campaign coordinator for Friends of the Earth, calls Obama’s pledged support for Georgia’s new plants, “a total bailout” of the nuclear industry.
“If the industry had to stand on its own two feet, it would not survive,” says the Aiken-based Clements. “The announcement is a real danger sign about how precarious the nuclear power industry is. It will not make it without government backing.”
Clements is also worried that SRS is being positioned as a prime spot for nuclear reprocessing — where nuclear waste is reused, extending its life but creating new waste streams. It’s one of the few sites in the country that has already done some reprocessing. DOE Secretary Steven Chu supports reprocessing research, as does S.C. political leaders, including Sen. Lindsay Graham and U.S. House Majority Whip James Clyburn.
The roadblocks to South Carolina’s future of nuclear storage and processing could go beyond political press releases. When the DOE planned to ship plutonium from Colorado to SRS for reprocessing in 2002, then Gov. Jim Hodges, a Democrat, provided some delays, having police and state troopers practice road blockades to prevent the shipments from entering the state. With S.C. already storing more than its share of nuclear waste, allowing more to pile up could easily summon the same NIMBYism that Nevada is experiencing.
Nevada, however, was chosen as the backyard burial site of the nation’s nuclear waste nearly a quarter century ago. And with our waste growing daily, Gov. Sanford and his pals aren’t keen on grabbing shovels to fill in a hole in the Nevada desert they paid to dig.