Echols: Confront nuclear waste disposal

ALBANY, Ga. -- Georgia Public Service Commissioner Tim Echols is a man on a mission. He wants to reduce the nation's ever-growing stock pile of nuclear waste -- and turn a profit off of it.

He points to Japan, which is just now getting a handle on a nuclear crisis resulting from an 8.9 magnitude earthquake and resulting tsunami that hit the island in March.

"The Japanese crisis really brought the problem of the disposal of nuclear waste to the fore," Echols said Thursday. "Storing concrete casks of spent fuel rods on site is not safe. So many things can go wrong, and the Japanese were storing waste on site. They were unprepared.

"It's clear lesson for Americans is that storing waste on site is a bad idea."

Echols says he hopes that the management of nuclear waste here in the United States becomes front and center in the debate -- not the generation of nuclear power itself. He believes it's time to for Congress to repeal its decision to allow the government to manage the waste disposal process.

The commissioner points to two area where the government has backtracked on waste disposal.

"Our first step backwards is the fact that our consumers are being charged twice for waste storage. The federal government is still getting their percentage off every kilowatt of power generated at our four nuclear reactors, and the plant operators are recovering their cost of on-site storage," Echols said. "The fact that the public is not aware of this double charge is baffling to me, and I hope our congressional delegation will begin to bang the drum on this issue in the near future. Georgians have contributed $1.324 billion into this fund so far."

Then there is the boondoggle known as Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Dug deep into the side of a mountain, the plan was for the site to become a nuclear waste repository. But the project was halted by Washington.

"Our second step backwards was the president's decision to pull the plug on the Yucca Mountain geologic repository. Yucca Mountain was not just any old piece of real estate. It was the perfect location for nuclear waste," Echols said. "Yucca is owned by the Department of Energy, very isolated, extremely stable and sits on the edge of the Nevada Testing Area. While I wish the government would take the waste to the partially completed repository in Nevada as promised, we'd need multiple repositories by the turn of century."

So what are we to do? Echols wants the U.S. to recycle spent fuel rods like the French are currently doing.

"I think Heritage Foundation scholar Jack Spencer has a good idea.

In his testimony to President Obama's Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future, he argued that our current approach to managing used nuclear fuel is broken," Echols said. "The government promised to take title to the used fuel and dispose of it. It did not. Spencer's plan would include some federal oversight, with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency playing a role. But his plan also injects market forces into the process and empowers the private sector to manage the waste.

"And obviously, not just any company is qualified to do this."

Echols points to Areva, a French company that has proved nuclear recycling can be profitable in that country. Areva is currently working on a $20 billion proposal to reprocess around 25 percent of America's spent nuclear fuel.

Regardless, Echols asserts we can't afford to do nothing, and maintaining the status quo is an accident waiting to happen.

"What we do with our nuclear waste is one of the most important issues in our day. Hopefully, the Japanese situation will awaken Congress to take action," Echols said. "Maybe then we can get nuclear waste management out of the hands of government bureaucrats and allow some of the brightest minds in the world to come up with a better plan."