Commentary: The ultimate delay game

As the five-year anniversary of Keystone XL’s application to the State Department approaches, proponents of the project agonize about the costly delays while opponents cite a lack of scientific certainty and certain doom for the environment if the project goes forward.

Once upon a time, an infrastructure project of this magnitude would have already been reviewed, permitted and built by now. Instead, the project has faced politically motivated – and costly – delays that have put thousands of jobs and lower gasoline prices for all Americans on hold. Unfortunately, regulatory delay isn’t reserved for just Keystone XL. Energy and infrastructure projects across the country daily face politically motivated regulatory and legal delays that add billions to project costs – and ultimately to the cost of energy delivered to the consumer.

The poster child for this kind of delay is the federal management of our nation’s nuclear waste. Over thirty years have passed since Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which requires the federal government to develop a system to manage the storage and disposal of our nation’s nuclear waste. In that time frame, U.S. ratepayers and utilities have paid $35 billion into the mandated federal Nuclear Waste Fund without any resolution. Rather, utilities – and by effect, their ratepayers – have been forced to shoulder the costs of onsite storage.

Although a solution to the permanent storage problem continues to remain out of reach (at least politically), a cohort of bipartisan Senators is ready to get to work on an politically feasible solution that will move nuclear waste from on-site storage facilities to an interim storage facility. The Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee held a legislative hearing Tuesday on the Nuclear Waste Administration Act of 2013 – a bipartisan bill sponsored by Senators Wyden, Murkowski, Feinstein and Alexander that could provide a smart path forward on nuclear waste management.

While not outright endorsing the legislation, U.S. Secretary of Energy Moniz stated that he believes the bill “is a promising framework for addressing key issues” and that such a resolution is “necessary to assure the future viability of an important carbon-free energy supply.” He’s right to acknowledge the critical need for such a bill. Legislation that would allow for the siting and licensing of a consolidated storage facility in a community that willingly hosted it would be a positive step forward on the road to a long-term disposal.

However, ultimately the federal government will have to develop a solution for permanent disposal of the spent fuel – whether it is Yucca Mountain or another facility. Secretary Moniz reported in yesterday’s hearing that the Obama Administration supports the development of interim storage facilities and disposal facilities in parallel.

Although the future of this bill remains highly uncertain, the level of bipartisan interest in the bill and Secretary Moniz’s personal leadership on this issue could yield some positive results for our nation’s nuclear energy consumers. Nuclear energy remains an important component of our nation’s all-of-the-above energy strategy and addressing the issue of waste will be critical to the future of nuclear energy. After a generation of delays, it’s reassuring to see our legislators act in a thoughtful manner to address the problem.