Why You Maybe Should Care About Yucca Mountain

The crest of Nevada's Yucca Mountain Photograph by U.S. Dept. of Energy via Bloomberg

Yucca Mountain, a ridge in the desert of southern Nevada and the government’s controversial pick for a nuclear wastebasket, is back in play … kind of.

A federal appeals court ruled this week that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has to keep reviewing a license application for the site, even though Nevada Senator Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and other critics effectively halted the plans in 2010.

This story is about as wonky as it gets. It goes back to the early 1980s and not much has happened in the 30 years since, unless you count the piles of dollars litigants have handed over to law firms across the country. Nevada residents aside, there are two groups of people who unwittingly have dogs in this fight: the shareholders of nuclear utilities and virtually everyone who lives near nuclear power plants all over the country.

In 1982, Congress approved a plan for the government to build a site to store spent nuclear fuel, in exchange for a stream of regular payments from the outfits running reactors. Yucca Mountain was the chosen spot, but because of strong opposition it has yet to take in any toxic waste. Regardless, even today, nuclear utilities are still paying. Collectively, they’ve contributed about $35 billion to date to a cleanup fund, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry trade group. And though the government is 15 years past its deadline for taking the spent fuel and storing it somewhere, power companies are still paying about $750 million a year.

A lot of utilities have wrestled the U.S. Department of Energy into settlements that will offset some or all of those costs, but the issue remains an expensive mess. For example, Entergy, one of the country’s largest nuclear utilities, said it has spent $1.5 billion on nuclear-waste fees—costs that it has been fighting to recover from the government in legal battles for a decade.

Which brings us to the second group of stakeholders: people living around nuclear reactors. In lieu of Yucca Mountain, utilities have turned to on-site storage, which is a fancy term for tossing toxic fuel rods into giant pools of water or into casks of cement and steel next to the steam-shrouded domes of reactors. In short, the U.S. doesn’t have one Yucca Mountain, it has dozens of them. Utilities say this is a perfectly safe practice, but it is expensive and it complicates the matter of decommissioning nuclear facilities.

Here are the states with the most spent nuclear fuel lying around, according to NEI:

• Illinois—9,010 tons
• Pennsylvania—6,290 tons
• South Carolina—4,210 tons
• New York—3,720
• North Carolina—3,670 tons

This week’s court ruling doesn’t greatly increase the chances that Yucca Mountain will eventually become a toxic dumpster; in fact, Senator Reid told Wall Street Journal reporters it means nothing. Still, the decision brings renewed attention to an issue that has been quietly burning away on balance sheets, both in the Capitol and in corporate America.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.