Could Someone Please Help the Biden Administration Store All This Nuclear Waste?

Could Someone Please Help the Biden Administration Store All This Nuclear Waste?
Photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP, Getty Images

The federal government has restarted a search for towns that will volunteer to be temporary homes for thousands of tons of nuclear waste.

The Energy Department announced it was reviving a program begun in 2015 to identify locations willing to hold onto nuclear waste while Congress hammers out a more permanent solution. The process will require more than just a few extra square feet in your backyard to toss a few waste barrels, though.

The government is looking for places to securely and safely store some of the 90,000-plus metric tons of nuclear waste that American power plants have generated since the dawn of the Atomic Age. Much of that waste — which is among the worst trash ever produced — is currently just sitting at reactor sites around the country, waiting for someone to give it a permanent home.

The program, dubbed a “consent-based siting process,” started during the Obama administration after plans to stash nuclear waste permanently at Yucca Mountain fell through. It was kicked to the wayside by former President Donald Trump, who favoured Yucca Mountain as a permanent facility — until it became politically inexpedient to do so. President Joe Biden opposes using Yucca Mountain, and so now, we’re back on the temporary nuclear waste home road.

The Energy Department is currently in the information gathering stage; the agency is looking for input from interested parties, ranging from municipalities to tribes to environmental groups. The request for information asks for the public to weigh in on any number of issues tied to nuclear waste storage, including the role of local governments and the public itself in deciding where to store dangerous waste. The notice also has questions around ensuring that “social equity and environmental justice” are part of the process, something that’s traditionally been in short supply when it comes to polluting facilities, mines, and other extraction sites. The Energy Department, for its part, is putting a positive spin on the prospect of living near (safely stored) nuclear waste.

“We know there are real benefits from jobs to new infrastructure that will result in interest in areas across the country,” Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said in a statement accompanying the announcement. “The public’s input is central to identifying those locations to make this process as inclusive and effective as possible.”

How much interest the program — which will take years to come together — receives is TBD. But there are signs that a coalition of the willing could form. In Japan, two small fishing villages are vying to store the country’s 19,000-ton nuclear waste legacy. As Bloomberg points out, there are a few locations already in the approval process to store nuclear waste in the U.S. That includes a partnership between two companies organised under the banner Interim Storage Partners LLC that wants to deposit 40,000 tons of waste near Andrews, Texas, located right on the border with New Mexico and in the heart of fracking country. (Seriously, look at the satellite view of the site.)

Though that project has received regulatory approvals at the federal level, state and local officials that initially endorsed it have since turned against the project over concerns a leak or spill could contaminate oil reserves, which would be one hell of a way to end drilling in the region. That fight, though, shows that the search for willing partners could be a challenge, to say nothing of efforts to identify a long-term storage facility given the multidecade fight over Yucca Mountain. But with no permanent solution to nuclear waste on the table right now and the fact that nuclear plants make up a huge chunk of carbon-free energy on the grid, the Energy Department is moving forward with Plan B (or X or whatever letter we’re on at this point). If it fails, there’s always coercion.