Heritage Foundation: Road to Clean Air Runs Through Yucca Mountain

Politicians have a knack for saying one thing and doing another.

Take their seemingly never-ending preaching over CO2. The world is in peril without major action, we’re told. According to Al Gore, we’ve never faced a greater threat, which ought to come as news to any veteran of World War II.

What is Washington’s response?

"America’s Climate Security Act," which the Senate recently debated. Sponsored by Sens. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., and John Warner, R-Va., it would mandate economy-busting caps on emissions and push subsidies for failed technologies. Add in some energy rationing, and you have Washington’s global-warming policy.

But there are ways to reduce greenhouse gases without wrecking the economy. Nuclear energy, for one, affordably can meet growing energy demand without emitting pollution or carbon dioxide.

But politicians, led by those from Nevada, are standing in the way. A major obstacle to commencing the nuclear renaissance remains the failure to open the nation’s repository for spent nuclear fuel at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain. Yucca is more than a decade behind schedule. Even if it were given a green light today, it would remain about a decade from opening.

Delaying Yucca has unintended consequences for Nevada and the nation. Opposition to Yucca has made building nuclear plants much more difficult. By hamstringing America’s energy options, obstructionist politicians are forcing fossil fuel plant construction when utilities might have chosen to build emissions-free nuclear.

But the past is past. Opening Yucca now would lead to a cleaner future.

Nuclear power, which provides about 20 percent of the nation’s electricity, has off-set millions of tons of CO2 and pollutants that would have been fossil-fuel power plants. According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, had America’s reactors not been operating, approximately 48 million tons of sulfur dioxide, 19 million tons of nitrogen oxides and 8.7 trillion tons of carbon dioxide would have been emitted since 1995.

In other words, by obstructing Yucca and, thus, nuclear power, these politicians, well-intentioned though they may be, are causing the very pollution they claim to deplore. This should outrage America. Yet the Yucca opposition continues to succeed in blurring the contradictory aims of its energy and environmental agendas.

For example, environmental groups in 2003 lauded Nevada Sen. Harry Reid for voting to cap CO2 emissions. But his anti-Yucca stance virtually assures that more fossil-fuel plants will be built.

Ironically, cap-and-trade schemes such as the one put forth in the Lieberman-Warner climate-change bill disproportionately will harm states such as Nevada that derive nearly all of their electricity (88.9 percent in Nevada) from fossil fuels.

Unfortunately, the debate over Yucca is at a stalemate. For many, it has become personal. But nuclear energy’s potential and Yucca Mountain are too important to America’s future. It’s time to put the political positioning and personal rancor aside.

The debate needs to shift to the potential that Yucca provides Nevada. It’s a valuable resource that could be leveraged to attract high-paying, long-term jobs.

The reality is that a nuclear resurgence will require a broad industrial and technological expansion. It is about enriching uranium, fabricating fuel, recovering valuable resources from spent fuel and recycling it and researching and developing new technologies.

All of this can be done safely and in Nevada. The state could become the Simi Valley of the nuclear renaissance.

By opposing the Yucca project, Nevada lawmakers not only deny Nevadans the economic benefit of a robust nuclear industry, but they deny the rest of the country the clean-air benefits of nuclear power. Without nuclear construction, demand will be met with more coal- and gas-fired power plants — and electricity rationing.

Nuclear power also would help locales meet stringent state and federal clean-air mandates, with which many struggle.

"Renewable" energy, such as wind and solar, simply cannot affordably meet the 40 percent increase in electricity demand that America will face over the next 25 years. No politician seriously can oppose nuclear power while advancing a clean-air agenda and expect the lights to stay on.

Ultimately, the road to cleaner air must run through Yucca Mountain. The choice, then, is clear. Nuclear energy, carbon dioxide or the lights go out. What’s it gonna be?

Jack Spencer is Research Fellow in Nuclear Energy at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org), where Garrett Murch is Deputy Director of House Relations.