Yucca Mountain project takes hits

The plan to store nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain takes some hard hits

Seismic monitoring took place on Yucca Mountain in 1994.

Seismic monitoring took place on Yucca Mountain in 1994.

On Dec. 12, Nevada Republican chair Sue Lowden led a delegation of 60 members of the state GOP central committee on a tour of Yucca Mountain, the site of a proposed dump for the high level nuclear wastes of other states.

When they finished the tour, during which they heard only from advocates of the project, they appeared to have become converts. They leaned heavily on the “it’s coming here anyway, so we might as well get as much money as we can” mantra that has become so familiar.

Lowden posted a piece on her blog reporting that the Yucca project can’t be killed unless the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA) is repealed, and that’s highly unlikely to happen. So she called on Gov. Jim Gibbons to start negotiating for benefits for Nevada in exchange for accepting the dump. Another of the Yucca tourists, Clark County Republican Party chair Bernie Zadrowski, sent out an email saying that Yucca critic Harry Reid, the U.S. Senate majority leader, should not be trusted on the issue.

“Can we even trust that [Reid] has Nevada’s best interest at heart by prematurely declaring the project dead?” Zadrowski wrote. “What if it isn’t dead, and we get caught blindsided without these important questions being answered?”

Two months later, Reid and his allies can argue that there is more than one way to kill a waste dump, and that repeal of the NWPA is not essential to the task.

In a series of actions, the Obama administration:

• declared that Yucca Mountain is not, as a matter of policy, regarded by the administration as an option for solving the problem of high level nuclear waste.

• recommended that Congress cut funding for the Yucca project to the minimum needed to avoid liability to the federal government.

• began a “process of finding a better solution for management of our nuclear waste” and of exploring new sources of power.

• accepted a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standard for allowable radiation at Yucca Mountain, dropping the less rigorous standard preferred by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.


The problem of storage of power plant nuclear waste began in the Eisenhower administration, when in a decision now regarded as shortsighted, federal officials trying to encourage the spread of nuclear power agreed to someday accept the waste generated. It piled up during the glory days of atomic power into the era when nuclear power plants went into decline. (No plant has been approved since the 1970s.) President Jimmy Carter in 1977 called an end to U.S. proposals for reprocessing of used fuel and set in motion a search for a waste dump site. (Reprocessing went ahead in Europe, where it had its own pitfalls. University of Utah scientists Robert and Susanne Vandenbosch report, “An increasing backlog of plutonium from reprocessing is developing in many countries. … It is doubtful that reprocessing makes economic sense in the present environment of cheap uranium.”)

It was that long-ago promise to accept the waste that incurred a legal liability for the U.S. government.

The news of all the policy changes under Obama has brought sharp reactions across the United States.

In Kentucky’s state capital, a state legislator was pushing legislation to encourage construction of nuclear power plants in that state. The Yucca Mountain news dealt it a setback. One lobbyist said Yucca Mountain “will not open.”

Wall Street Journal reporter Keith Johnson tried to answer the question of what the decreased likelihood of a Yucca Mountain dump meant to the nuclear power industry: “In the short term, nothing. Yucca Mountain never opened, and spent fuel from the country’s 104 reactors are kept in pools on site. Big nuclear countries like France don’t have deep geological storage, either. Even if it did open, there’s already a big enough backlog to fill it, so the administration was going to have to find a bigger solution to the waste-storage issue anyway.”

In the Pacific Northwest, Jeff Mapes of the Oregonian wrote, “This could have a direct impact on the Northwest since millions of gallons of radioactive waste at Hanford Nuclear Reservation—not so far upstream of Oregon on the Columbia River—are now likely to stay put.” Hanford, once one of the candidate sites for the waste dump, has a nuclear history going back to the Manhattan Project and is now the site of a massive long-term, multi-billion dollar cleanup.

But Gerry Pollet, the leading citizen activist on Hanford issues, responded that “Yucca Mountain’s demise as a national high level nuclear waste dump is good news for the cleanup of Hanford and to protect us in the Northwest from future [Hanford waste dump] proposals. … [T]he only way Yucca Mountain could be licensed was by relaxing the cancer risk groundwater and drinking water standards for the area around Yucca Mountain. These are the same standards we rely upon in advocating that USDOE [U.S. Department of Energy] must empty Hanford’s leaky high-level waste tanks and clean up the leaks from those tanks to protect our state’s groundwater and the Columbia River.

“A million gallons has leaked from Hanford’s high level nuclear waste tanks. The contamination has reached groundwater and is flowing towards the Columbia far more rapidly than USDOE said was possible. If the nation opens Yucca based on relaxing these standards—approved by the Bush administration and Congress—that will come back and bite us in the Northwest—and bite us hard. Nevada officials have quietly, but repeatedly, pointed to some of our state’s congressional leaders having voted to support relaxing those standards and asked if we would want Hanford exempted from them—which would eliminate the justification for spending $2 billion a year to clean up Hanford.”

Back in Nevada

In Nevada, meanwhile, state legislators considering the amount of money to put into the state’s Nuclear Projects Office—which leads the state’s fight against Yucca—wondered whether the office is still needed.

U.S. Sen. Harry Reid said it is. In a speech to the Nevada Legislature before most of Obama’s moves, Reid had said, “This is not the time for the state to back off by cutting funding for the legal battles that are still being fought. We are in the last lap of the race, and Nevada needs every weapon to finally win this 20-year-plus battle.”

After Obama’s actions were announced, Reid spokesperson Jon Summers said the senator’s statement still stands: “Until it’s all final, the state should continue fighting the dump with full force and on all levels.”

Also at the Nevada Legislature, Assemblymember Ty Cobb introduced a resolution encouraging state officials to accept Yucca Mountain as a waste dump site in exchange for also adding an energy research and development facility, reminiscent of the 1975 Nevada Legislature resolution that invited the federal government to put a waste dump in Nevada in exchange for also siting a solar energy research facility in the state. The 1975 resolution was supported by many, such as Richard Bryan, who later changed their minds and opposed waste storage.

On top of the problems for waste storage is a rule change published by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission during the Bush administration last year that tried to make a new policy that waste “can be stored safely and without significant environmental impacts until a disposal facility can reasonably be expected to be available”—a change that states with nuclear power plants regard as an indefinite license to keep waste on-site at plants. This month, several state attorneys general filed papers to contest the change.