Politics Has Always Outranked Science at Yucca Mountain

The June 8 editorial “Radioactive politics,” about the long-running battle over what to do with America’s nuclear waste, concluded that it was politics, not science, that prompted President Obama to cancel the proposed national disposal site for highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel at the Energy Department’s Yucca Mountain site in Nevada.

But politics drove this mistaken plan’s inception. By picking Yucca Mountain in 1987, Congress scrapped the principle of regional equity, essential to the passage of the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act. Fierce opposition to disposal sites in the states where most of the nation’s 104 reactors are located resulted in a choice that had more to do with political convenience than scientific merit.

Even if Yucca Mountain were to open today, by the time it accommodated all the spent nuclear fuel now housed in unsafe conditions at reactors across the country, a comparable amount of highly radioactive waste would be stockpiled at crowded and vulnerable spent fuel pools at 51 sites. The safe and secure storage of nuclear spent fuel in dry, hardened casks should have a higher priority than pursuing the quest, now in its 55th year, to find a dump for the largest concentrations of radioactivity on the planet.

Robert Alvarez, Takoma Park

The writer, a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, was a senior policy adviser to the energy secretary from 1993 to 1999.