Congress may again consider Nevada nuke waste site
It’s been at least two years since I last visited Yucca Mountain in Southern Nevada, the site of the nation’s sole nuclear waste repository, and I understand things haven’t changed much there since my drive-by.
Located off Highway 95, it is closed to visitors, surrounded by high chain-link fences bearing “NO TRESPASSING” warnings and a large sign at the entrance which says, “U.S. Dept. of Energy Nevada Test Site Yucca Mountain Project.”
At the main gate sits a cluster of trailers. In the distance lie the appropriately-named Funeral Mountains. A brothel is nearby. What a sad, lonely, desolate place this is in the vast Nevada desert.
In 2000, President George W. Bush announced the beginning of construction of Yucca Mountain, which would store 77,000 tons of radioactive waste gathered from 131 existing, overflowing sites in 39 states.
Billions of dollars have since been spent to build the site, which consists of two, five-mile-long underground tunnels to store the waste. But the project today is unfinished, having been stalled several years ago at the insistence of then-President Barack Obama and Nevada U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader.
Today, only a handful of workers remain there, most of whom are security guards. The site in rural Nye County, between Beatty and Indian Springs and about 100 miles north of Las Vegas, is not much more than a ghost town.
However, the new 116th Congress, which opened for business just last week, with the Senate still in the hands of Republicans but the House of Representatives now heavily Democratic following the recent mid-term elections, may take up the project again this current session.
Nevada has historically been the federal government’s choice for large public projects. Because of its huge size, remoteness, small population and equally small congressional delegation (Nevada had only one House member until the early 1980s), the state has traditionally been compliant and eager to host government projects which bring in pots of money and hundreds of workers to build and staff these projects.
So beginning with the construction of the Boulder Dam in Southern Nevada in the 1930s, nearly a dozen military bases across the state and, in the 1950s, the Nevada Test Site where hundreds of above ground and underground nuclear tests were conducted, Nevada became a willing host to these lucrative undertakings.
But following the nuclear tests, which ended in the 1960s, many Nevadans, as well as citizens of adjacent states, became alarmed when health dangers associated with nuclear fallout caused by the tests indicated that human deaths from cancer and leukemia were rising at disturbing rates.
In Utah, for example, there also were reports that more than 4,000 sheep had allegedly died from radioactive fallout brought into the state by winds that blew in radioactive particles from the Nevada tests.
There also were charges made that actors John Wayne and Susan Hayward, who had starred in the 1954 motion picture “The Conqueror,” which had been filmed near Cedar City, Utah, as well as several other members of the cast and crew, had died from the effects of the radioactive mushroom clouds blown eastward from the Nevada Site which, incidentally, was close to the current Yucca Mountain nuclear repository site.
Fast-forward to today, where incumbent Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto and newly-elected Nevadan Jackie Rosen (both Democrats) have gone on record in opposition to announcements made by President Donald Trump that he may again support legislation to complete the construction of Yucca Mountain. Last May, the Senate approved Trump’s earlier proposal to finish the project, but it was turned down by the House of Representatives. Masto, Rosen, other Democratic senators as well as some Republicans oppose the project’s completion, citing possible leakage of nuclear waste into the soil at Yucca Mountain.
Northern Nevada GOP Congressman Mark Amodei has been somewhat ambivalent toward the measure, but the state’s three other congresspersons, all Democrats, are opposed. In some parts of Nevada, though, local politicians and residents have endorsed completing the project, stating it would bring in those coveted pots of gold and people to build and staff the site. Coaxing tourists and businesses to rural Nevada, especially along the Highway 95 corridor which stretches from Las Vegas into Churchill County and Fallon, has always been a challenge.
Several communities along Highway 95 have gradually been losing residents over the years, and when I drive through these little towns, I see more and more storefront vacancies. Now that some of the brothels along the highway also have shut their doors, there are increasing fears that funding to support schools, hospitals and local governments in some rural areas may continue to stagnate.
Heading up the list of Nevadans in support of completing and opening Yucca Mountain is the chairman of the Nye County Commission. The list is growing, I understand. Also supporting the project’s completion and opening is the powerful Los Angeles Times.
What will be the outcome of the storage site dispute cannot be even guessed. It lies in the hands of the president and Congress, as it should.
David C. Henley is publisher emeritus of the Lahontan Valley News and Fallon Eagle-Standard.