FRESH IDEAS: Yucca Mountain: Dead or alive

The Yucca Mountain repository is dead but the Department of Energy's license application to construct the repository is alive and well. The message about one of Nevada's most controversial political issues is as mixed as our moody spring weather.

It's hard to explain how something pronounced dead so often still can be alive, except in a horror movie.

At the beginning of April, I observed three days of arcane, legalistic and occasionally dramatic hearings by Nuclear Regulatory Commission judges to determine which contentions (arguments about what's wrong with the license application and the planned repository) would be considered by the panels of judges. Not surprisingly, the State of Nevada filed hundreds of contentions on the safety of the repository. The Department of Energy attorneys asserted that no contentions should be admitted.

Statements by members of the Obama administration and signals from the budget process tell us Yucca is dead. Energy Secretary Chu during Congressional hearings this spring said, "Going back to what the president has said, and I support, Yucca Mountain is not on the table." But the president's budget is expected to fund DOE to defend the license application.

This year Chu will convene a blue ribbon commission (why is it always blue?) to look at alternatives to Yucca Mountain. If the commission is tasked with a big-picture review of the problems and possibilities of nuclear waste, it may serve to move the nuclear waste issue off Yucca's dead center.

The nation's default policy for decades (at least since 1987) has been to force the repository onto an unwilling host state, in an increasingly unsuitable location. The political impasse on Yucca is evidence that it is past time to count on Nevada's Yucca Mountain to solve the national nuclear waste problem. The nuclear utilities have now conceded that onsite interim storage is a safe short-term solution to enable licensing the next generation of nuclear reactors without solving the waste problem.

Yucca Mountain has been condemned to death by the current administration. It's analogous to a person convicted of a crime and sentenced to death. The individual is on death row, but will an execution happen? Maybe, maybe not. Consider the automatic appeals process, a possibility of a new trial, different judge, DNA testing, commutation of sentence or pardon, or new evidence. There are many reasons why someone sentenced to death may not be executed. It's the same with Yucca Mountain.

An objective review of nuclear waste policy and potential is overdue. But as long as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is reviewing the license application, it is premature to assume that Yucca Mountain is dead.

- Abby Johnson is a resident of Carson City. She consults on community development and nuclear waste issues. Her opinions are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of her clients.

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