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Congress dithers, Americans pay: What a (nuclear) waste

Like many Americans, you may not have an opinion on nuclear waste policy. But when you consider what it’s costing taxpayers, that may change.

How much? About $7 billion to date and years of wasted time, with the near certainty of another $27 billion to $50 billion on the line, all courtesy of the forced generosity of, well, people like you and your neighbors.

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Some history is helpful. In the 1970s and ‘80s, Congress began the work of determining what to do with radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel – not just from commercial nuclear power reactors, but from defense activities such as powering the Navy’s nuclear submarines.

Congress directed the Department of Energy to collect and store waste starting no later than 1998. It chose some federal land at Yucca Mountain in Nevada to be the destination, so long as it was deemed safe by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

With that vision, the department entered into contracts with commercial nuclear power companies, whose customers in 35 states paid the DOE roughly $750 million a year to fulfill this service. Those commercial plants, and not the taxpayer, have paid the DOE some $38 billion with interest over the years – as it should be.

But 1998 came and went with no repository. In entered the federal taxpayer.

Nearly 100 lawsuits later, the Treasury Department has been making annual payments to nuclear power companies to recover the costs of storing and securing nuclear waste in the interim. The money comes from the Judgment Fund, a “permanent, indefinite appropriation” that is as big as the taxpayers’ pockets can stretch.

To date, taxpayers have covered nearly $7 billion in legal damages, routinely making the DOE one of the most expensive sources of Judgment Fund payouts each year.

It will get worse before it gets better. The DOE projects it will be legally liable for $27 billion more to nuclear power companies. That figure assumes the government will restart the Yucca Mountain repository review process now. Suspecting that won’t happen, the nuclear industry estimates taxpayer liability will be closer to $50 billion.

It’s not clear when things will get better for the taxpayer. Former Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) made a career out of trying to eliminate the Yucca Mountain project and found a powerful ally in the Obama administration’s DOE and Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Since then, the Trump administration has routinely requested the funds necessary to follow the law, starting with completing the scientific review of Yucca Mountain. But Congress remains in the deadlock of the Obama years, unable to agree on funds for Yucca Mountain.

For those with a grim sense of humor, Congress and the DOE have offered hundreds of millions in taxpayer-backed tax credits and government loan guarantees for advanced nuclear power plants … which if built will have no place to dispose of their spent fuel given the current state of the situation.

Or again, Congress has been using payments by nuclear power customers to write off increased federal spending on mandatory programs such as food stamps and Medicaid, rather than seeking to actually reduce spending with real cuts.

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In other words, Congress has little incentive to do anything at all so long as taxpayers are silent. Maybe it’s time they spoke up.

Katie Tubb is a policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).