COLUMN: Protecting South Carolina's interests at Yucca Mountain

Apr 30, 2012

Shortly after the conclusion of the Second World War, scientists across America began studying possible commercial uses of nuclear materials. By 1958, the first nuclear power plant was up and running outside of Pittsburgh, Pa. Today, there are 104 nuclear power reactors in the country with four more under construction in Georgia and South Carolina.

The same technology that brought such a swift end to WWII now powers 20 percent of our nation. In the Palmetto state, nuclear power provides more than 50 percent of our electricity and has for more than 30 years. However, this power source does come with certain restrictions; namely, the spent fuel which is produced as a by-product of the generated power.

In 1982, Congress addressed the issue of storing our country's high-level radioactive waste by passing The Nuclear Waste Policy Act. This legislation assigned the Department of Energy with developing a national repository for high-level radioactive waste. After taking into consideration the environmental studies of numerous locations, Congress amended the Nuclear Waste Policy Act in 1987 and designated Yucca Mountain, Nev. as the location for our country's national nuclear repository, which later was approved by President George W. Bush in 2002. The licensing process for Yucca Mountain was under way until President Obama cut the funding for the project in 2010. At that time, he directed a Blue Ribbon Commission to develop a plan to dispose of our country's radioactive waste.

After nearly two years of fact-finding missions and deliberation, the Commission issued its final report. The report highlighted several key findings. It strongly urged the Department of Energy to move forward in locating a nuclear waste repository and that the repository should be managed by a federally chartered corporation, not by politicians or bureaucrats. Finally, the panel urged that an interim storage facility should be developed to house the spent fuel until a permanent site is determined.

This Blue Ribbon Report was issued on Jan. 26. Since that date, the president has taken no steps to find a new repository, create a non-partisan federally chartered corporation or address an interim storage facility for spent nuclear fuel.

All of the extensive work and findings of the Blue Ribbon Commission appear to be ignored. The president never had any intention of listening to and adhering to their findings. The commission simply was a political ploy to avoid following the 1987 Law of the Land and providing Yucca Mountain the opportunity Congress demanded it have to prove itself qualified to be our country's national repository.

To make matters worse, as part of the original Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, nuclear powered utility companies are required to pay into a newly created trust fund that would pay for the development of the repository. These entities derived the funds from fees placed on consumer's monthly bills. For the past 29 years, South Carolinians have paid more than $1.3 billion into this fund, making our state the third highest contributor.

Unfortunately, regardless of South Carolina's exorbitant contributions, we still have nothing to show for it. Spent nuclear fuel and defense waste still are being stored at the Savannah River Site and seven additional nuclear facilities across our state. This is unacceptable. Our citizens have paid for a service and the federal government must honor its part of the deal.

In an effort to keep the government accountable, I recently introduced companion legislation to Sen. Lindsey Graham's "Nuclear Waste Fund Relief and Rebate Act." This bill requires the president to certify Yucca Mountain as the designated site for our country's high-level radioactive waste repository. If the administration fails to follow through, it enacts the following penalties:

1. Utility Companies across the country will no longer be forced to make payments to the Nuclear Trust Fund.

2. The utility company will receive the deposits it has contributed to the Nuclear Trust Fund (75 percent of those funds will be used to reduce rates for ratepayers, and 25 percent will be used for infrastructure improvement).

3. No later than Jan. 1, 2017, Defense Waste must begin to be moved to Yucca Mountain. If this requirement is not met, the DOE will be required to pay up to $100 million a year to the states holding the waste.

The citizens of South Carolina have done their part in financing a national repository, and Congress has illustrated due diligence by declaring Yucca Mountain as the site.

If the president chooses to play politics with nuclear waste, the citizens of South Carolina deserve reimbursement.

I will fight to ensure that South Carolina has a voice in Washington. For too long, we have been given the runaround.

The message is now very clear: Abide by the law, or pay the price.