In an era that has been rife with raiding funds that are earmarked for future purposes, it probably shouldn’t have come as a shock to see that it’s going on in the forlorn nuclear power industry as well.
News reports last week said power companies — including one in Wisconsin and another just across the state line in Zion, Ill. — have been siphoning ratepayer dollars that were set aside for the dismantling of nuclear plants when they’re taken out of service and instead using it to build concrete pads and steel casks to store spent nuclear waste on site.
That’s against federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission rules, but the NRC has been complicit in this raid.
“All of the plants that have permanently shut down in recent years have sought and been approved for the use of decommissioning funds for spent fuel storage costs,” an NRC spokesman told Associated Press.
Power companies don’t deserve the blame on this. They were never expected to be the final stop for storage of spent fuel — that was going to be the job of the U.S. Department of Energy.
They had a plan, and a site: Yucca Mountain in Nevada. But those plans went astray thanks to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who has blocked the federal government from developing the remote mountain site.
In the interim, utilities have had to deal with the storage of spent fuel on site for many more years than they anticipated. That costs money for both construction and security and it raises questions over whether the set aside funds will be sufficient.
It raises questions as well over just how secure these plant-based, on-site storage areas will be in the future since all of the country’s nuclear plants are located near bodies of water because of their cooling needs.
Over time, bad things can and do happen. For evidence of that we have only to look to St. Louis, where a small community is on edge because a 5-year-old fire beneath a landfill is growing uncomfortably close to buried nuclear waste. County officials say there is a potential for radioactive fallout to be released if the fire reaches the waste.
This is not waste from power plants. It’s almost 9,000 tons of buried barium sulfate that came from the federal government’s Manhattan Project to develop nuclear weapons during World War II.
The raids on the decommissioning funds and the continued storage of nuclear waste at power plant sites across the country are bad public policy. With Reid set to leave office, Congress should revive the Yucca Mountain project, fund it and end the haphazard system that now exists.