If someone had suggested 30 years ago that electricity users would be contributing billions of dollars to a government trust fund - and getting nothing in return - the idea would have been dismissed as fantasy.
But this is really happening, and there's a possibility it will continue indefinitely unless an effort is made to put a stop to it.
Since passage of the landmark Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, users of nuclear-generated electricity have paid a fee of one-tenth of a cent per kilowatt-hour toward construction of a deep-geologic repository to store high-level radioactive waste from electricity production and the manufacture of nuclear weapons. Congress designated Yucca Mountain, a remote and bone-dry area in the Nevada desert, as the site for the waste repository.
But four years ago President Barack Obama terminated the Yucca Mountain project after more than $10 billion and three decades of work had been spent on it. Although the high-level waste program has come to a standstill, with 69,720 metric tons of highly radioactive used fuel still stored at nuclear plants around the country, ratepayers continue to contribute to the waste fund.
Here in New Jersey, we have paid more than $665 million into the waste fund - and the money keeps flowing. Nationally, the payments exceed $35.7 billion - and they are growing at a rate of $300 million each year.
What's more, the Department of Energy was legally obligated to take possession of the used-fuel rods no later than 1998, but the used fuel remains where it always has been, in engineered water pools and concrete-and-steel casks at nuclear plants. Reactors like Salem 1 and 2, Hope Creek and Oyster Creek in New Jersey were not designed to hold used fuel indefinitely. Rather, their mission is electricity production for homes and industry. Without the zero-carbon energy that nuclear plants provide, our air quality and global-warming emissions would be worse from having to burn more fossil fuels.
Now, the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners and the Nuclear Energy Institute, an association of nuclear utilities and reactor vendors, have asked a federal court to order the Department of Energy to promptly suspend payments to the waste fund until Congress addresses the waste problem in new legislation. Should Congress fail to act, or nothing is done to restart the Yucca Mountain project, "DOE cannot justify continued waste fund fee collections," NARUC and NEI said in the court petition.
Those who say this is an extreme step to take are simply wrong. They offer no reasonable alternative for breaking the political deadlock over nuclear waste. By taking the matter to court, NARUC and NEI hope policymakers will be forced to address the waste problem. Basically, they have two options: Either revive the Yucca Mountain project or follow a consent-based approach in selecting a new repository site.
The Department of Energy used such an approach in gaining public acceptance for a repository to hold plutonium-contaminated waste in southeastern New Mexico. A blue-ribbon presidential commission has urged DOE to adopt this approach in selecting an alternative to Yucca Mountain. This could yield positive results, since local governments in at least three states - New Mexico, Texas and South Carolina - have expressed interest in hosting the repository.
There is no guarantee this will happen. But inaction is no longer an option. Twelve states - including California, Massachusetts and Wisconsin - have banned the construction of new nuclear plants until the waste problem is resolved. The byproducts of electricity production and the manufacture of nuclear weapons cannot stay forever in scores of de facto repositories. The public has a right to an efficient and safe long-term waste-storage system.
James McGovern, of Ocean Township, is an energy consultant to government and industry.