Rep. Burgess: The path to nuking carbon emissions goes through Yucca Mountain
Washington, December 8, 2020
by Rep. Michael Burgess
Originally published in the Dallas Morning News
Congress’ responsibility is simple: write, pass and ensure the faithful enactment of laws. When it comes to providing America with a clean energy future, Congress has fallen short of its responsibility.
In 1987, through the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, the Department of Energy was entrusted to build and operate a permanent repository for spent nuclear fuel. Fast forward through the years of studying a variety of locations, and Congress decided on Yucca Mountain in Nevada.
Three decades later, Congress has yet to uphold its promise to fully fund operation of this site. America is demanding clean energy alternatives, and it is impossible to provide a zero-carbon future without including nuclear energy. Nuclear power accounts for 55% of zero-emission, baseload electricity nationwide. The American nuclear industry is working to introduce new reactors that are safer, smaller and more affordable than ever. One issue yet remains: how to address spent nuclear fuel.
Uranium, the most common fuel, is used by nuclear reactors to achieve fission. This process produces heat to create steam. The steam is then used to turn turbines generating electricity. Eventually, this fuel is removed and stored in cooling pools and later put in dry cask containers. While these containers are safe for decades, the only permanent way to dispose of this fuel is deep underground.
Some countries have found success reprocessing spent fuels, which helps to reduce the volume of spent fuel. Some new reactor designs might also burn up more fuel. The fact remains that neither reprocessing nor higher efficiency can eliminate waste entirely. The fission process will always produce some amount of material that must be disposed of in a safe way for thousands of years. The best solution for a permanent repository is Yucca Mountain.
Yucca Mountain was chosen by Congress and backed by science, but the Obama administration stripped funding for its licensing process, halting all development at the site. Years of scientific studies and engineering assessments have deemed the location and geology to be uniquely safe, but the administration turned its back on this clean energy solution for easy political points. Following the decision, Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., led a group of Energy and Commerce Committee members, including me, on a visit to the site to learn both sides of the debate.
Without a doubt, the current licensing process is broken. To fix this process, we must pass the bipartisan Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act, which passed the House Energy and Commerce Committee. This bill advances Yucca’s licensing process, promotes interim storage facilities, integrates the federal government’s waste management activities, and improves the federal government’s engagement with local and state stakeholders. This would finally put Yucca Mountain on a path to open its doors. Despite this bill having wide bipartisan support, the Democratic leadership in the House continues to refuse to bring it up for a vote.
If Congress is seriously considering ways to foster a cleaner future, it must fulfill its commitment to providing a permanent repository for spent nuclear fuel. It is time to vote on the Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act. It is time to open Yucca.
Michael C. Burgess is a Republican representing Lewisville in the U.S. House of Representatives.
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