Yucca Mountain project may soon be put to rest
During my two terms as Nevada’s governor, perhaps no single issue has been as vexing and problematic as the efforts of the federal government to locate a repository for highly radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel at Yucca Mountain, just 90 miles from Las Vegas. Despite a decade of revelations about the site’s fatal geotechnical flaws and the systematic falsification of scientific data by project personnel, somehow this federal project, spearheaded by the Department of Energy (DOE), continues to be pushed down our collective throats.
Now, after years of strong, sustained, and unified opposition by the State, its political leaders, congressional delegation, citizens, local governments, and others, Yucca Mountain finally and deservedly appears to be headed toward the trash bin of history.
In 2002, I issued a statement outlining reasons why I had disapproved the President’s decision to recommend Yucca Mountain as a nuclear waste repository. In that statement, I observed that, “Yucca Mountain is but the latest in a long series of DOE boondoggles-one based on bad science, bad law, and bad public policy. In addition, better, cheaper, and safer alternatives exist.” The statement went on to conclude, “the only thing inevitable about Yucca Mountain is that it will plot the course of so many other doomed DOE mega-projects.” More than two billion dollars of taxpayer and ratepayer dollars later, Congress finally appears to have reached the same conclusion.
U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Pete Dominici-a prominent supporter of nuclear power and the nuclear industry-recently introduced new legislation that shifts focus from the failed Yucca Mountain program to the concept of interim storage, either at existing reactor locations or at regional “consolidation and preparation” (CAP) facilities. The legislation, subsequently approved by the full Committee, implicitly recognizes for the first time that the country is on the wrong track in its approach to dealing with spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste. The importance of this legislation cannot be overstated.
Despite the looming death knell for the Yucca Mountain project, recent media coverage of DOE’s revised Yucca Mountain schedule-a timetable that would have the facility begin operations in 2017- clearly demonstrates that officials at DOE’s Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management will continue the agency’s bureaucratic effort to keep the fiction surrounding this site alive.
As with other major federal programs that have ultimately collapsed under the weight of shoddy science, excessive costs, and strong opposition-a super colliding superconductor and the Clinch River breeder reactor to name just two-the Yucca Mountain program is not likely to disappear overnight. Like General Douglas MacArthur’s reference to old soldiers, such federal programs tend to fade away over time. Sen. Dominici may have envisioned such an eventuality when he suggested that the time has come to put Yucca on the “back burner” while the country explores more reasonable and potentially successful nuclear waste strategies.
The Yucca Mountain fight has been a long and difficult one. Nevadans can be justifiably proud of how the State has pulled together to bring this dangerous, ill-advised, and unnecessary project to a standstill. For years, Nevada has stood alone in opposing the project and exposing Yucca’s fraudulent science, excessive costs, and unacceptable impacts and risks. Nevada has also been at the forefront of the effort to alert the rest of the nation to the tremendous hazards associated with transporting thousands of shipments of deadly radioactive waste across the country to an unsafe site in Nevada.
It has been Nevada’s strong and unyielding opposition over the past two decades that has prevented an out-of-control federal bureaucracy from making a mistake of unprecedented proportions, which would impact many generations of citizens-both in Nevada and around the United States-for thousands of years to come.
Although the battle is not yet over, I am very encouraged by the new thinking and direction in Congress. Thanks to the sustained efforts of all Nevadans, we may finally be seeing the light at the end of the Yucca Mountain tunnel and the beginning of a new chapter in the nation’s approach to solving the nuclear waste problem.
• Kenny Guinn is the governor of Nevada.