The debate about nuclear waste has been starting to heat up a bit recently. A google search of “Yucca Mountain” turns up dozens of articles from just the last few weeks. Being a nuclear engineer myself, I have a decent understanding of the science involved, and have kept myself abreast of the developments and arguments on both sides of the issue. Being a libertarian, I also have a bit of a unique perspective on the issue.
First, some history. In the early days of nuclear power, the federal government was concerned about the possibility that nuclear fuel, new or used, could be diverted towards the production of nuclear weapons without their knowledge. As measure of protection against this threat, they passed very strict regulations concerning the tracking of nuclear materials. Down to the milligram.
Also, in the name of public safety, they required that all facilities with the potential to generate radioactive materials, have money set aside, up-front, designated for the decommissioning and restoration of the site to “green field”, with no residual traces of radioactivity above background levels.
Finally, the Department of Energy (DOE) placed a high tax on all commercial nuclear fuel, under the proviso that they would be responsible for its final disposal. But the DOE has thus far not made good on its promise to dispose of the fuel, and has not taken possession of a single bundle. Which brings us to today’s argument.
As of now, some decommissioned nuclear plants have shipped fuel off site, and managed to return to green field status. But most used fuel remains at the plant sites were it was used to generate electricity. Much of it is stored in pools, that act as coolant to keep the highly radioactive material from melting itself, and to act as shielding from the radiation. Some of it has cooled off enough and been placed into large concrete canisters for temporary storage. But none of the fuel is in a place that could be considered permanent storage.
Some utilities have begun suing the DOE for return of the funds they collected for the purposes of used fuel disposal, since they have failed to fulfill their end of the bargain. But thus far, no rulings have been made, and no funds have been returned.
So why is this article titled Govt v Govt v Govt? Well, decades ago, the DOE chose a site called Yucca Mountain, as there intended location for permanent disposal of the nuclear fuel. The site is located in the desert of Nevada. Geologic studies have been done to determine if the site is stable enough to keep the waste entombed for thousands of years, and construction has been performed to get the site ready and it is nearly complete. But the state of Nevada has blocked the site from opening, claiming they refuse to be the countries nuclear waste dump.
As libertarians, we tend to come down of the side of state’s rights. That the Federal government shouldn’t be allowed to bully states into doing things their citizen’s don’t want. But there’s a twist. The local, county government is in favor of opening the site. Their county commissioner has stated “The county’s official position has been the same for years, it is that we want to hear the science.” and “It gets frustrating, you know, as an elected official, we need all the facts before we make a decision, and for the state to continue to stick their fingers in their ears and say ‘no,’ puzzles me,”
What Should Be Done
So who’s right? What should we think about this situation? Well, whose rights have been violated? Technically, the rights of the owners of the nuclear power plants were violated by the DOE, when it extorted money from them and failed to hold up its end of the bargain. So what should be done with the nuclear waste? The DOE should return the money it stole, and individual site owners should be allowed to decide how it is disposed of.
We could hold individual companies liable for any damages caused from the release of radioactive material, and then a business case can be made for a private nuclear waste repository, probably in Yucca Mountain. A private company could purchase the site, and accept the liability of storing the waste, for a fee from the utility. This would probably amount to a sizable investment, and the owners of such a site would want to purchase insurance to protect themselves financially in the event of accidental release of radioactive materials. The insurance agency would then have a strong incentive to require strict regulations and safety precautions to prevent such a release.
This is another example of how federal government intervention has created a battle, this time between three separate government entities, where the problem could have been solved by private companies in a free market with a just system of compensation for damages.