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Editorial: Use Trump budget as a chance to rethink nuclear waste

Yucca Mountain portal

President Donald Trump's latest budget includes no funding for restarting the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste project about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas. But he said he is open to alternatives. We hope that includes the reprocessing of spent fuel rods. This 2018 file photo shows people leaving the south portal of the idled Yucca Mountain site during a congressional tour of the long-planned nuclear repository. (AP Photo/John Locher)

It looks like President Donald Trump is giving up on the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste storage project in Nevada after his three previous budget requests were thwarted by Congress.

That may be politically shrewd in a state Mr. Trump narrowly lost in 2016, but it is shortsighted in the long game of finding a place to put the nation’s spent fuel rods, now stored at some 100 commercial reactor sites around the country at a cost of about $400 million annually.

It also makes it harder for South Carolina to get rid of at least 12 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium, thousands of used fuel rods and vast amounts of nuclear waste.

President Trump included no funding in his fiscal 2021 budget for the long-planned but idled nuclear repository. But he and Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette said the administration was open to alternatives, which is welcome news.

What about reprocessing spent fuel for reuse in reactors? The French have been doing it safely for decades, and several other countries, including the United Kingdom, Japan and India, do some reprocessing.

Reprocessing provides a source of nuclear fuel and significantly reduces the amount of waste bound for permanent storage.

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Despite the United States pioneering the technology, President Jimmy Carter in 1977 by executive order indefinitely suspended the practice out of fear that nuclear materials would fall into the wrong hands. That shut down the first large-scale U.S. reprocessing plant in Barnwell. And the mixed-oxide project at the Savannah River Site, where weapons-grade plutonium was to be converted into nuclear fuel, would ultimately turn out to be a failure at a great cost to taxpayers.

The stalemate over fuel rod reprocessing and nuclear waste storage makes it harder to talk about slowing climate change by relying more on nuclear energy. Recycling fuel rods, however, could be a win for reviving nuclear energy while reducing waste. “We’re going to look at new technologies that might allow us to address the spent fuel,” Mr. Brouillette said recently without going into detail, though he did mention working with private industry to find interim solutions.

As the Energy Department looks to transition SRS to new missions, including the production of bomb cores, we hope the administration will take a fresh look at reprocessing fuel rods as a way to supply existing reactors and reduce the amount of waste that eventually will have to be permanently stored.

In his budget statement, President Trump said his administration remained committed to managing and disposing of the nation’s nuclear waste and would not “stand idly by, given the stalemate on Yucca Mountain.”

“To create momentum and ensure progress,” he wrote, “the administration is initiating processes to develop alternative solutions and engaging states in developing an actionable path forward.”

We expect Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott, as well as the Palmetto State’s House delegation, to bend the president’s ear on behalf of South Carolina, which has both plenty of waste and spent fuel rods in storage.

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