The United States' nuclear reactors have already accumulated enough high-level radioactive waste in the form of spent fuel—63,000 metric tons—to fill the Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada if plans for that repository hadn't been cancelled.
And in its final days, the Bush administration promised to indemnify utilities for the costs of waste storage for 21 proposed new reactors. The ongoing accumulation of waste from existing reactors together with the waste from those 21 planned reactors would fill a second Yucca Mountain, experts say.
Meanwhile, American taxpayers have already paid five utilities $565 million in reimbursement for unburied high-level waste because Yucca Mountain is not available, and that payout had been made before the Bush administration agreed to indemnify the 21 other projects. More payouts are expected as other utilities stuck with piles of spent fuel sue to force the government to pay penalties.
"It was rash for the Bush Administration to sign contracts for new reactors while taxpayers are on the hook for billions due to default on existing waste contracts," said Dr. Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, in a prepared statement. "These new contracts are likely to add billions more in damages at a time when the federal government is struggling with deficit containment."
Makhijani is a nuclear scientist with an engineering degree from Berkeley. The IEER is a foundation-supported nonprofit organization that disseminates, and explains in layman's terms, information about nuclear issues.
The federal Department of Energy estimates that by the year 2020, the liability of American taxpayers for breach of government contracts to take responsibility for the high-level waste at the nation's nukes will add up to $12.3 billion. The nuclear industry figures the bill at over $50 billion. That doesn't include the new liabilities created by the agreements made late in Bush's last term in office.
A widely touted solution to the waste problem is reprocessing, but that solution is controversial. Critics of nuclear power complain that reprocessing contributes to nuclear pollution and proliferation, and all, including corporate proponents of nuclear power, agree that it is expensive. Tasked with seeking a workable way of handling the waste problem is the Obama-appointed Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future, which will issue an interim report on its findings in 18 months and a final report in two years.