For 30 years, the federal government has been forcing a nuclear waste repository on the state of Nevada. Nevada has pushed back against Congress, a succession of presidents and secretaries of energy, and the nuclear-power brokers.
When the feds first eyed Nevada as a dumping ground for the nation's high-level nuclear waste and spent-nuclear fuel from power plants, Nevada's population was 621,975, and Gerald Ford was president.
The Yucca Mountain site, at the western edge of the Nevada Test Site, was attractive because of its remote, dry isolation and proximity to land contaminated by radioactivity and already owned by the government. It would be an easy sell to the state that was a willing host for nuclear weapons testing. Nevada was powerless in Congress, it was thought, and easy to override.
Then the feds began to study the site to determine if it was "safe." Over the years, the litmus test changed from "safe" to "suitable" to "able to be licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission." It's more than a word game: The understanding of what the repository would do and how it would contain the waste has shifted over time.
It was assumed that a mountain in the desert would be, in the nuclear power industry's words "bone dry." But one of the biggest challenges to DOE has been how to handle the water that moves through the cracks, fissures and earthquake faults in the volcanic rock above the water table in Yucca Mountain, and how to handle the heat generated by the waste.
Along the way, DOE realized that geology alone would not contain the waste. It is now depending on engineered barriers, including disposal containers made of experimental metals whose long-term resistance to corrosion is uncertain. The debate is not about whether the repository will leak radiation into the water table and atmosphere, it's about when - one hundred, five hundred or thousands of years into the future.
In the past two years, the repository program has been slowed down by rule and design changes, and a vexing number of details. DOE has had problems preparing the body of information that must be available electronically for the licensing process, a prerequisite for applying for a license. There have been serious questions about whether some of the research meets quality-assurance requirements.
Yucca Mountain isn't remote anymore. Now the population of Nevada is more than four times higher than in 1975 - pushing 2.6 million. Clark County alone has 1.8 million people, and Pahrump, down the road from Yucca Mountain, has a 9 percent annual growth rate. By the time the repository would be operational, optimistically projected at 2017, Nevada's population will be seven times greater than it was in 1975.
Yucca Mountain hasn't changed, but Nevada has.
The national political climate has also changed. While DOE's Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management is being directed by Ward Sproat, a dynamic outsider, Nevada's Sen. Harry Reid as majority leader is in a place to slow Congressional action and block fast-tracking of the repository.
But even Reid, speaking to reporters after the November election, acknowledged that he can't stop Yucca, just slow it down. Expecting Congress to eliminate all funding for the project, the ultimate OFF switch, is not a realistic option.
What stopped the ill-conceived Great Basin MX missile project 25 years ago was the president.
In the next 12 months, Nevada is going to be in the spotlight as an early proving ground for presidential candidates. The Democratic Party's presidential caucus will be held in January 2008. Like New Hampshire and Iowa, voters and the media should have unprecedented access to meet the presidential hopefuls and quiz them about their Yucca stand. Republican candidates will also court Nevada as a possible swing state.
The next president has the opportunity to smash the glass and pull the emergency brake to stop the costly and unsafe Yucca Mountain repository program. The new president can redirect efforts into research and development, support above ground storage at or near existing nuclear power plants as a safe interim measure, and flip the Yucca switch to OFF.
The new year brings Nevadans the opportunity to get commitments from presidential hopefuls to bring the Yucca Mountain project to a long overdue and screeching halt.
• Abby Johnson is a resident of Carson City, and a part-time resident of Baker. She consults on community development and nuclear waste issues. Her opinions are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of her clients.