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EDITORIAL: Nuclear waste: the problem that won't go away

Nuclear energy has been an ever-evolving part of technology since the beginning of the 1940s. 

It has been contested on several fronts, but the question at hand is not about whether or not we ought to further pursue nuclear energy — its potential to mitigate effects of climate change and its energy source sustainability are enough to continue the research into the matter — but rather the question is about how to combat the growing rate of radioactive waste it produces.

President Donald Trump voiced an opposition this October to fund a deep geological repository in Yucca Mountain, Nevada to permanently store the country’s high-level nuclear waste, pushing progress on nuclear waste management further into the future. 

However, this announcement was contradictory to his previously proposed budget for 2018, which allocated $120 million to fund this project. 

Both President Barack Obama’s and Trump’s administrations have failed to properly address the issue of radioactive waste build-up due to the force of political pressure and selfish motives.

Researchers among the international community have concluded that the most optimal solution, as of late, is the construction of singular, deep geological repositories for permanent storage of high-level waste. 

Finland is currently leading the way in the construction of the Onkalo Spent Nuclear Fuel Repository at the Olkiluoto Nuclear Power Plant on Olkiluoto Island, Finland. And other countries such as France and Sweden have taken substantial steps to follow in this lead. 

However, the United States has halted progress on a similar repository. 

In 1987, the U.S. Department of Energy amended the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 to recommend Yucca Mountain for the location of the nation’s repository. The recommendation went to Congress with grand support, but Nevada vetoed the approval. The veto was soon overturned by Congress due to the nation’s overwhelming support.  

However, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit upheld Nevada’s appeal in 2004. The court stated that the repository would be required to ensure prevention of leaks for one million years before it could be approved for licensing.

Research has since come far in regards to the type of rock needed to surround such a repository, the materials best suited for immediate storage containers and the methods of reducing waste through nuclear reprocessing facilities to recycle massive amounts of Plutonium and Uranium.  

Nevada’s congressmen have fought to keep the repository out of the state in order to gain their public’s approval and hope for a re-election.  

Similar motives have come from the executive level. Obama and Trump both removed funding recommendations for a singular repository due to their need for support from Nevada congressmen for other political agendas.  

But the state of spent nuclear fuel and other high-level wastes in the country is not one to take lightly.  

Without a permanent deep geological repository for final storage, this waste is left to sit in what is built to be interim storage at nuclear reactors, of which there are currently 98 licensed to operate all across the U.S., according to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. This number is significantly more than any other country’s and is roughly 20 percent of all nuclear reactors in the world.

Furthermore, these current interim storage facilities often are only built to properly store high-level waste for up to 50 years and are incredibly more expensive than a single repository would be, according to a 2013 report from the Nuclear Energy Agency.

Energy Secretary Rick Perry said, “We have a legal responsibility. We have this waste out there. We need to have this licensing issue addressed.” 

But this is more than just a legal responsibility; it is an ethical responsibility, regardless of the status of law, to protect the earth and all possibilities of future generations.  Without this repository, there is no other solution.

What has become a political issue needs to be regarded as what it truly is: a humanitarian and ethical issue.  

President Trump needs to redirect his focus on the Yucca Mountain repository, ignore political pressures and push for further research and development of radioactive waste in order to ensure future sustainability for lives, the environment and the economy.

A previous version of this editorial inaccurately stated that Nevada vetoed the construction of the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository because of disapproval and fear from people living in the area. The people of Nye County, Nevada actually are among those who actively support this repository. The veto stemmed from tourism and political reasons from those outside of Nye County. Congress passed a major spending bill Dec. 22 ,1987 that put a stop to studies in Hanford and Texas as other potential sites for the repository. The bill later became known as the "Screw Nevada Bill," and sparked political tensions that persist today.The IDS regrets this error.

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