Yucca Mountain and a path to a long-term solution for nuclear waste

Humans tend to have trouble balancing immediate temptations against distant rewards, whether it’s a doughnut vs. heart health or splurging on a car vs. higher income in retirement. Policymakers are hardly immune to this, with short-term political pressures often trumping longer-term considerations.

I’ve just written a paper about this, in part suggesting devices that could help policymakers focus on longer-term goals. One example is handing some power over to an institution that operates at arm’s length from the political process. The Federal Reserve is the best example of a permanent institution of this kind; the Base Closure and Realignment Commissions are among the most successful temporary such devices.

One policy area in urgent need of a longer-term approach is the treatment of nuclear waste. Safe storage of material that will remain lethal for thousands of years is a difficult task for politicians interested in re-election. This is an area where NIMBY meets NIMTO, as the Not In My Back Yard movement clashes with Not In My Term of Office.

The status quo is messy: $31 billion sits, unused, in the Nuclear Waste Fund, while about 70,000 tons of waste is stored at about a hundred sites across the country, waiting for a safe long-term home. Since the Obama administration stopped work in 2010 on the Yucca Mountain storage site in Nevada, essentially no progress has been made.

In 2012, a blue-ribbon commission described the Yucca reversal as “but the latest indicator of a policy that has been troubled for decades and has now all but completely broken down.” The panel faulted Washington politicians for failing to prioritize long-term strategy over short-term political considerations.

In the Republican-led Congress, the Yucca site is being raised again. But even if a bill to restart work passes both chambers, it would almost certainly be vetoed by the president.

The right move here is to assign decision-making authority to a separate institution, such as a congressionally chartered federal corporation, with the resources to make the necessary difficult choices. Rather than continuing to argue over particular decisions, legislators need accept that on some issues they are not best-positioned to make them.