Nevada gears up to fight Yucca Mountain nuke waste site
LAS VEGAS — Nevada officials and advocates are gearing up to resume a three-decade fight to block efforts to bury the nation’s most highly radioactive waste about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
They’re doing so as they face a Republican Congress and a new president who owns a hotel towering 64 stories over possible rail and freeway routes for transport of spent nuclear fuel to Yucca Mountain.
Project foe Judy Treichel said Wednesday she’s circulating maps showing the Trump International Las Vegas tower is about a city block from the main rail line and just a little farther from Interstate 15.
“We’ve had six or seven years to relax a while, and now we have to gin it up again,” she said.
The politics of Yucca Mountain have changed since 2010. Nevada no longer presents a united front and no longer has the backing of retired former Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid.
On Tuesday, a member of a commission heading the state’s anti-Yucca Mountain fight referred to Treichel’s maps while colleagues unanimously authorized a report telling the incoming state Legislature the Yucca Mountain project “remains suspended, but advocates in Congress and the nuclear industry are … looking for ways to restart it.”
Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval and most of Nevada’s congressional delegation oppose the proposed repository, including Republican Sen. Dean Heller and Reid’s successor, Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto.
But U.S. Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nev., who was part of a delegation of six congressmen who visited the site in April 2015, has said he is open to listening to proposals about it.
Nye County Commission Chairman Dan Schinhofen heads a coalition of nine rural Nevada counties that want the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission to complete its licensing process to determine if the repository could be safely built.
Schinhofen said local economies would benefit from billions of dollars’ worth of jobs and new infrastructure.
In an interview, Schinhofen derided Treichel’s maps as a scare tactic. He said rail and road routes could be built that would avoid the Las Vegas Strip.
“Actual science should trump political science,” Schinhofen said. “We do not advocate for Yucca Mountain. We advocate that the science be heard. If it’s proven to be safe, the benefit to the (rural counties) would be huge.”
The ancient volcanic ridge near Nevada’s former national nuclear proving ground was identified in 1982 as a possible place to entomb more than 77,000 tons of spent nuclear reactor fuel stored at more than 100 power plants and research facilities around the country.
About $15 billion has been spent, according to some estimates, on studies about whether casks of hazardous material could remain safe and dry on rails in a honeycomb of tunnels 1,000 feet underground. The final cost of building the repository is expected to top $100 billion.
Congress approved the Yucca Mountain site in 2002, over Nevada’s objection, and then cut off funding after Reid became majority leader in 2007.
Under President Barack Obama, the Energy Department shuttered the project in 2010 and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission halted licensing proceedings. An Energy Department commission later recommended consent-based site selection.
Utilities have paid billions of dollars over the years into a fund to pay for a federal repository, and states that say they were promised a site sued. A federal court in 2013 ordered the commission to resume licensing.
As president, Trump has not indicated a clear position on the project. He pledged during his 2016 campaign to study the issue. His nominee for energy secretary, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, supports nuclear power but has not clarified his stance on Yucca Mountain.
Sandoval provided an early endorsement for Perry’s failed bid to get the Republican nomination for president in 2012.
Nevada has spent about $50 million opposing the Yucca Mountain project since 2001, said Robert Halstead, the Nuclear Projects agency chief heading the state’s anti-repository efforts.
The state also holds crucial water rights that the federal government would need to acquire in order to proceed.