Some thought that nuclear energy may get buried after the Japanese Fukushima deluge. But the rumblings in this country are suggesting that it won’t die.
Several issues are creeping back into the American consciousness at once: The revival of Yucca Mountain, the safety measures enacted and the possibilities of surviving a nuclear accident here and finally, the licensing of two new nuclear sites after 33 years. The message that is radiating from those seemingly disparate events is that the nuclear resurgence is gathering more steam.
“The United States is building new nuclear energy facilities under an improved licensing process that exhaustively addresses safety considerations,” says Marvin Fertel, chief executive officer of the NuclearEnergy Institute. “It also assures that the lessons learned from the industry’s licensing and construction experience are properly applied to future projects.”
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) granted two separate licenses to build nuclear reactors this year: One went to Southern Company and the other to Scana Corp. so that both companies could build two reactors on existing sites. Now, if those utilities can stay on time and on budget, the consensus among energy insiders here is that it would lead to more such construction, according to Forbes.
But according to Fertel, the nuclear revolution — to this point — has been a quiet one: U.S. electricity demand has risen more than 80 percent since the NRC last approved a construction permit in 1979. Unbeknownst to most people is that at least half of that demand has been met by nuclear facilities that have increased their rate of production by 40 percent during much of that time.
Still, several lingering questions remain. And the one that is now resurfacing is the resurrection of the once-pronounced-dead Yucca Mountain, which was to be the central repository where all civilian and military nuclear waste would be buried. While Congress had authorized the location — and allocated billions to study its possibilities — the Obama administration killed it.
But now the matter is getting its day in court. Advocates of the location are saying that U.S. officials have a legal obligation to create the burial site whereas the opponents are saying that there were too many pitfalls associated with the location. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia could decide in a few months whether to force the NRC to re-open a licensing case.
Refresher: Congress voted to approve in 1987 the repository that is about 90 miles from Las Vegas. But then-candidate Barack Obama vowed to eschew the location, in a move that many believe was meant to placate the democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
Reid, meantime, has been able to withhold the necessary funds to move forward. And in a separate move, the NRC Chair Gregory Jaczko, who once served as a senior staffer to Reid, nullified any further consideration as a result. Then the U.S. Department of Energy withdrew its application. Now, the utilities that have poured in $29 billion for the permanent storage site are suing to get the project restarted, saying that they can prove it is scientifically and technically viable.
“The closeout of the Yucca Mountain license review has been a complicated issue,” says Chairman Jaczko, with dedicated and experienced people holding different viewpoints.” He is insisting his move to pull out was not political — something for which the NRC’s own inspector general is skeptical.
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