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Reprocessed thoughts on Yucca Mountain

Guy W. Farmer
For the Appeal

As my regular readers know, when it comes to the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump, I’m much more interested in the politics of the issue than I am in the science. Nevertheless, I finally have an answer to those who ask what we should do with highly toxic waste if it isn’t stored in Nevada: reprocess it at regional reprocessing centers outside our state, like the one in neighboring Idaho.

This practical solution to the nuclear waste problem was presented at a recent Yucca Mountain seminar organized by former Reno Gazette-Journal columnist Ty Cobb, a retired Army officer who worked on national security issues for President Reagan. During the Feb. 26 seminar, Cobb advocated a reappraisal of the Yucca project based on a “neutral” assessment of the proposal, if such a thing is possible. For his part, longtime Nevada Nuclear Projects Director Bob Loux rejected Cobb’s proposal and reiterated his ongoing opposition to the project, a point of view shared by this columnist and more than 70 percent of Nevada residents.

“There is a unique opportunity for the Silver State,” Cobb wrote in a position paper presented to the seminar. “Assuming Nevada’s legitimate safety and security concerns were met, the state would accept Yucca as the nation’s nuclear waste repository … (and) would draw extensively on the Nuclear Waste Fund to offset its transportation, communication, health, public safety and education requirements.”

“(Cobb’s) report reflects remarkably misinformed views about the ABCs of nuclear energy, the Yucca Mountain project and the applicable laws,” Loux asserted in his written response. “Just about every significant fact in (Cobb’s) paper is either wrong or misleading.” Although the pro-Yucca paper calls for a “neutral, unbiased assessment” of Yucca-related economic and safety issues, “the report’s real agenda is obviously to reverse the State’s opposition to the project,” Loux charged, and I agree.

Cobb’s arguments are familiar to those who follow this controversial issue. Although he isn’t connected to the Nuclear Energy Institute or other Yucca project lobbyists, he waves a fistful of federal dollars at us and urges the state to cash in. Cobb contends that Yucca represents “a significant economic stimulus” for the Silver State, but Loux rejects his “pie in the sky” argument by claiming that federal law prohibits Nevada from tapping into the $27 billion Nuclear Waste Fund.

While the Yucca Mountain debate rages unabated, I remain firmly opposed to the idea of converting Nevada into the nation’s toxic waste dump. But I am willing to consider a proposal presented to the Reno seminar by Dr. John Scire, who teaches an advanced energy policy course at the University of Nevada. He advocates nuclear waste reprocessing using new waterless electro-metallurgical technology currently being developed and tested at the nearby Idaho National Laboratories.

REPROCESSING

Scire and many scientists think the U.S. should follow the example of France and other countries by extracting reusable plutonium from the radioactive waste. “Reprocessing might be the most efficient, intelligent and best way to handle nuclear waste in the U.S.,” Scire has written. “Reprocessing burns very long-lived waste products in a fast-burner reactor, reducing the duration of storage to 300 years and the waste volume by 95 percent.” To me, that sounds like a promising solution to the nuclear waste storage problem unless the U.S. is somehow less technologically advanced than France, which I doubt.

Although Loux isn’t opposed to nuclear waste reprocessing, he wants it to happen somewhere else since Nevada doesn’t generate any toxic waste. “Plutonium … is a nuclear explosive and a handful can blow up a city,” he notes. “Having lots of it around … means we’d have a lot to worry about,” especially since Yucca Mountain is only 90 miles from Las Vegas, the nation’s fastest growing city.

According to Scire, one or two reprocessing plants would have to be built in order to facilitate his plan. Each plant would have three separate structures: one to reprocess the waste, one to fabricate new fuel rods and a fast burner reactor to incinerate long-lived elements of the waste. “While nuclear waste reprocessing may not be the perfect solution, it is certainly the most intelligent approach for Nevada,” the professor argues. His approach makes sense to me as long as the reprocessing is done elsewhere, marking the final death knell for the infamous 1987 “Screw Nevada Bill,” which made Yucca Mountain the only site to be studied for a national nuclear waste dump.

The political landscape has changed dramatically, however, and Nevada now has much more political clout than it did 20 years ago, especially since Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and every other elected official in our state have vowed to kill Yucca Mountain. This 21st century political reality makes it highly unlikely that Congress would be willing to consider a “neutral” reappraisal of the Yucca project.

In the meantime, Reid and his congressional allies continue to cut the project’s budget while the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Agency prepares to examine troubling safety issues. I still believe this dangerous project is on life support if it isn’t dead already. But along with most of my fellow Nevadans, I won’t be satisfied until Congress finally kills the project once and for all.

• Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.