U.S. nuclear waste needs a home — now

Plutonium is not political.

It is governed by the laws of physics, not of nations. It is therefore unaffected by the president of the United States, or the senior senator from Nevada.

Many of the burning issues of today’s political scene will be long-forgotten in a hundred years. The issue of what we do with our nuclear waste will not.

Hundreds of generations from now, the more than 50,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel our nuclear power plants have produced (as of today) will still be lethal to living creatures of any political persuasion.

It’s no wonder that 59 years ago, Congress passed the Atomic Energy Act, which recognized the federal government’s responsibility to safely dispose of nuclear waste.

Then, 31 years ago, Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, defining the government’s responsibility to store spent fuel and other high-level waste — like the massive amount of defense-industry waste in the leaking horror that is Hanford, Wash. — in a deep geological repository.

The bureaucratic process, which seems itself to have a half-life measured in geologic terms, began to grind away at the process of selecting a repository site.

Back in the ’60s, it had looked like a salt mine at Lyons, Kan., was it — until geologists found oil and gas exploration bore holes in the formation.

Inertia brought us to the early ’80s, when Congress decided to pick two sites, in the interest of regional equity, and then to the late ’80s, when it realized — d’oh! What were we thinking? Picking just one site is going to be difficult enough, never mind two.

After a process that has been argued to death, Yucca Mountain, Nev., was chosen. And the project bumbled along its bureaucratic path. The ’90s passed in a haze of lawsuits and thermal testing and budget reauthorizations. A portal was constructed in the side of the mountain, and that, too, was argued about endlessly.

Finally, in 2002, The Energy Department officially designated Yucca Mountain as an acceptable site. The governor of Nevada immediately exercised his right to veto that designation, and both houses of Congress then voted to override his veto.

More lawsuits and fighting over the rail route to the site pushed the projected opening date from 2017 to 2020 at the earliest.

Then, decades and billions of dollars after the site was first considered, a presidential candidate came to Nevada and promised to kill the Yucca Mountain program — which earned him some critical votes and the support of Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the Senate leader. The candidate became President Barack Obama, and he kept his promise, withdrawing budget dollars and moving to pull the facility license.

So the Nuclear Regulatory Commission suspended work on yet another assessment of the site — until this week, when the D.C. Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals told the NRC, and in effect President Obama, that the executive branch is breaking the law.

Reid said the court’s decision means nothing. It would be advisable for the administration to come to a different conclusion.

Above and beyond all the infighting, the truth is really not difficult to understand: It is the responsibility of the federal government to make sure this unbelievably toxic physical byproduct of decisions it made long ago about nuclear power and nuclear deterrence is put in a place where it can’t harm people.

We know politicians frequently play fast and loose with the facts, but the facts of nuclear fission are not playable. Storing spent fuel in pools at reactor sites is playing Russian roulette with the health of our citizens.

Maybe it isn’t fair. Maybe the process was flawed. But we need Yucca Mountain, and we need it now.