The day after President Trump’s request for funding to restart work on the Yucca Mountain nuclear repository (see article below), Nevada officials approved a US$5.1m contract for legal support to fight the proposal. Robert Halstead, head of Nevada’s Nuclear Projects Agency, said the state lacks the expertise in dealing with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to do the work itself. The contract is for two years.
But in an editorial, a local newspaper said a debate was necessary:
“The truth of the matter is this: every day, high-level nuclear waste is piling up in short–term facilities that were never meant to handle the current load. We are not nuclear experts. We will not pretend to know the answers, or to even know whether or not pursuing Yucca Mountain is something the state definitely should (or definitely should not do). But the time is long overdue for our politicians to start talking about it. So often, Yucca is simply a non-starter. Besides Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nevada, who represents much of [the Yucca area], the [Nevada] congressional delegation has long been quick to stand firmly against Yucca at every turn. But at the end of the day, if it’s not here, where? If there’s some other option, then that’s perfect. But what if there isn’t? What will Nevada — and the country writ large — do then?”
There was instant political reaction to President Trump’s renewed US$120m bid to restart work on the Yucca Mountain nuclear repository, dividing opinion in Nevada.
The bid is included in the Department of Energy’s $30.6 billion budget request for 2019, which was published yesterday (11 February) as part of Trump’s proposed US$4.4 trillion federal budget. The US$120m would restart the licensing process, and establish an interim storage program to address the US’ growing stockpile of nuclear waste. Announcing the Yucca funds request, US Energy Secretary Rick Perry said: “We have a legal responsibility. We have this waste out there. We need to have this issue addressed.”
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which must determine whether Yucca Mountain is safe for long-term storage, is also seeking more than $47.7 million for the licensing process at Yucca Mountain. The site was designated by Congress in 1987 as the sole site to permanently store nuclear waste, but was halted by the Obama administration as part of a deal with then US Senate Majority Leader and Nevada Senator Harry Reid to pass the Affordable Healthcare Act (‘Obamacare’).
The announcement once again pitted urban and state representatives against rural communities and their local representatives.
Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval, and both of the state’s two US senators, Republican Dean Heller and Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto condemned the budget proposal. However, in the region where Yucca Mountain is sited Nye County Commissioner Dan Schinhofen and the local US Congressman Mark Amodei welcomed the announcement.
Voices against Yucca
In a statement Governor Sandoval said:
“We continue to disagree on the necessity to invest any money at all on this ill-conceived project. Yucca Mountain is incapable of safely storing the world’s most toxic substance and Nevada will continue to oppose any efforts to dump nuclear waste in our state.”
Senator Dean Heller added:
“A state without a single nuclear power plant should not have to shoulder the entire nation’s nuclear waste burden. Instead of pursing a failed project that has already cost taxpayers billions of dollars, the Administration should refocus its efforts on the only sustainable path forward: a consent-based approach.”
His fellow senator, Catherine Cortez Masto, elaborated on the consensual approach required:
“There is bipartisan agreement in Nevada’s congressional delegation, and widespread opposition amongst Nevadans against Yucca Mountain. I will continue to fight this Administration and call for consent-based citing for federal projects. Local voices must be heard.”
Local voices for Yucca
But according to the Commissioner of Nye County (where Yucca is sited), local people want the facility to progress:
“We haven’t been allowed to see if the proposed site is even safe for construction. All the President’s budget does is allow for the science to be heard on the safety of Yucca Mountain. Included in the budget request is $3.6 million for Nye County as the host community for the repository. I hope our opponents can articulate why they oppose funding to help the elderly, veterans and everyone that needs medical assistance. I hope they can explain why they are afraid of hearing the science.”
The issue is also being used by a Republican Senate candidate who is seeking to beat incumbent Dean Heller in local primaries later this year. Danny Tarkanian said it would prompt a boost in federal spending and job creation in the state:
“With Yucca Mountain, Nevada has the opportunity to become a world leader in the reprocessing of nuclear fuel and eliminate 97 percent of our country’s nuclear waste. In pushing to revive the project, the Trump administration recognises how important Yucca Mountain is to Nevada and America. If done right Yucca Mountain would create thousands of jobs and bring billions of dollars in revenue to Nevada, spurring a new age of technological innovation in the Silver State and creating a safer and cleaner America.”
Uncertain future still remains
Despite the local furore, it still remains uncertain whether Congress will actually approve the Yucca Mountain funding. The US$120m had originally been requested a year ago for the 2018 federal budget. Although approved (and increased to US$150m) by the House of Representatives, the bid fell foul of discussions in the Senate to reach a deal on last week’s compromise federal budget.
Nevada may be divided, but it appears to stand alone amongst the other 49 states, where waste sits in surface interim storage facilities, and where there is an appetite to build a repository and remove the waste. This article from Illinois provides an excellent overview of the history of the Yucca programme and the of other states’ concerns about prolonged surface storage.
Whatever happens, one can’t help but wonder if Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman might be intimating the Washington DC horse-trading yet to come. At the White House for an announcement on the president’s infrastructure plan, she told a local newspaper that while she did not talk to Trump about Yucca Mountain, she said nuclear waste could not be shipped there until improvements are made: “You dare not send it to Yucca until the infrastructure’s fixed,” she is reported saying.
The announcement prompted considerable local and national US media coverage. Links to these stories can be found on our international media review page.