Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Yucca Mountain: Still a bargain at $90 billion

Is it really so surprising that the projected cost of the nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, – the completion of which is critical to reviving the nation’s moribund nuclear energy sector -- has soared from $58 billion to $90 billion since 2001? Read about it in detail here. The project was supposed to have opened back in 1998, meaning it’s now more than a decade behind schedule, and it's in a perpetual fight for its life against those who traffic in fear and are positioned to cut-off funding. All these delays and obstructions add to the price tag.

Now, the same folks who have done so much to drive up costs turn around and use these higher costs as a reason to nail the coffin closed. What a racket they've got going. But they're hardly ever called out on their hypocrisy and mendacity.

Simple old inflation accounts for some of the cost growth. And this cost estimate isn’t just to open the facility, but covers the 100 years it will take to finish the storage process and seal it up. Prorated over a century, that actually sounds affordable, considering the challenging problem Yucca Mountain helps resolve. Given what the federal government squanders annually on food stamps and farm subsidies alone, and relative to the massive waste that occurs everywhere in the federal government, and given the critical part nuclear energy plays in meeting this country's energy requirements, $90 billion actually sounds like a bargain to me.

Completing Yucca Mountain would be a concrete and measurable accomplishment that helps address a real and pressing problem – more than can be said for most of what the feds squander money on. And consider for a moment what it will cost to replace the 20 percent of electricity that nuclear facilities provide.

A point also missing from this news story, and from much of the debate, is that much of the money for Yucca Mountain is coming not from the Department of Energy, but from utility companies and their ratepayers, who have paid billions of dollars into a special fund based on Uncle Sam's promise to provide a secure storage facility. If the obstructionists succeed, and the federal government can't make good on its promise, not only will the future of the nuclear energy be at risk, but those funds -- plus potentially huge damages -- will have to be paid back. And what do you suppose it will cost to start on an alternative storage solution from scratch? That's also conveniently missing from the debate.

Yucca Mountain isn't a perfect solution. But it's the best solution we have at the moment. While $90 billion ain't chicken feed, it's a pittance compared to what it will mean to taxpayers, ratepayers and America's energy security interests if Yucca Mountain suffers a permanent meltdown.

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