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Homeless nuclear waste

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Maine Yankee’s owners worry that spent fuel and other wastes may sit where they are for decades, given the Obama administration’s decision to abandon work on a controversial federal repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

“We’re kind of in limbo now,” says Maine Yankee spokesman Eric Howes, standing next to a concrete barrier at the approach to the interim storage yard. “The law says the federal government was supposed to take this stuff away 11 years ago. There are places they could take it, so we want them to please enforce the law.”

Fifty years after the first civilian nuclear power plant came on line, the United States has yet to decide what to do with the spent fuel they produce, raising questions about proposals to build more plants to meet future energy needs and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. “If you don’t have a credible endpoint for spent fuel that deals with the long-term safety and security issues, you really have to wonder if nuclear power is a reasonable choice,” says physicist Edwin Lyman, a senior staff scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) in Washington.

By law, the federal government was supposed to have built a permanent repository and begun taking custody of the spent fuel piling up at the nation’s 104 nuclear plants in 1998. Complications – both political and technical – delayed work at Yucca Mountain, where the government has spent more than $13 billion. The delays caused spent fuel to begin piling up, filling storage pools at power plants across the country and forcing some of them to build special facilities to warehouse the waste.

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