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Yucca Mountain nuclear repository reemerges as media issue

29 November 2016

Major changes—a key senator’s departure and a new president—reshuffle the technopolitical deck.

The US Department of Energy has conducted underground tests at Yucca Mountain in Nevada to determine the location’s suitability for nuclear waste storage. Credit: US Department of Energy
The US Department of Energy has conducted underground tests at Yucca Mountain in Nevada to determine the location’s suitability for nuclear waste storage. Credit: US Department of Energy

A decade ago, a news article reported an Energy Department announcement that Nevada’s Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository would begin accepting spent fuel by 2017. “True,” the article continued, that’s “about 19 years” late. How late will Yucca arrive eventually, if it ever arrives at all? With Nevada Democrat Harry Reid retiring as Senate minority leader, taking with him the power to block the project, media murmurings are stirring about reviving it.

Democrat Reid worked with President Obama on the blockage. In 2011, a New York Times article began, “The Obama administration’s rushed efforts to shut down Yucca Mountain were strictly political and could set back the opening of a nuclear waste repository by more than 20 years, according to a new report by a federal watchdog,” the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

The Times reported that the administration “did not provide a technical or scientific basis for shutting down the site and failed to plan or identify risks associated with its hasty closure.” It added, “House Republicans who asked GAO to conduct the report in 2009 are pouncing on the study as proof the project should be revived, considering Yucca Mountain has already cost more than $12 billion, and a permanent repository would offer a nationwide solution for more than 65,000 metric tons of spent fuel currently being stored near reactors in 33 states, an amount expected to double by 2055.”

Three years later, just before the 2014 congressional election, a Times article opened by citing a Nuclear Regulatory Commission report affirming “the suitability of Yucca Mountain as a disposal spot for nuclear waste, finding that the design met the commission’s requirements [and] laying the groundwork to restart the project if control of the Senate” were to change hands. Just after the election, conservative columnist George Will called for newly empowered Republicans to mandate completion. He charged that the “signature achievement” of Reid’s career had been “blocking this project, on which approximately $15 billion [had] been spent.”

But the blockage has continued, and rancor about it has risen right along with the sunk costs and the completion-cost estimates. Maybe that’s why, as CNN put it, candidate Trump “twice ducked the issue” in an October interview with a Nevada TV reporter.

Rancor partly animated the Wall Street Journal editorial that was heard among the earliest post-election media murmurings about resuming Yucca. It called Reid “crazy” and generally criticized him in seven paragraphs before getting to Yucca with its final three:

Oh, and we hope the Trump Administration takes another look at the nuclear-waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. In an under-reported political bargain, Mr. Reid promised Mr. Obama that he would do the President’s dirty work on Capitol Hill if the President blocked the Yucca project. Mr. Obama named Reid aide Gregory Jaczko as chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 2009, and a year later Mr. Jaczko shut it down.

Mr. Jaczko later resigned after the four other commissioners, Democrat and Republican, denounced his abusive management style. A pair of D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals rulings have since rebuked the Administration for violating the law in relation to Yucca, and in 2014 a government study found that the Yucca design for waste is environmentally safe. The U.S. still needs a solution for nuclear waste that is piling up at sites around the country.

Mr. Trump owes no political debt to Nevada, which due to Mr. Reid’s efforts voted last week for Hillary Clinton and defeated the GOP’s Senate candidate. Reviving Yucca would be a sign the Senate is moving past Mr. Reid’s era of dishonest political manipulation and partisan rancor.

The editors later printed a sarcastic letter calling for the repository to be named for Reid. “At some point, he could also be interred there,” it proposed, since “it’s always best to sequester radioactive material.” For the editorial’s headline, the editors had chosen “Harry Reid and the horse he rode in on.” William Safire, the Nixon White House veteran who later became a New York Times columnist, once explained the title of a political book—…And the Horse You Rode In On—as “intended to strike a note of defiance.” It’s a well-known phrase, Safire reported, that opens with an obscenity replaced here by those three ellipsis points. The phrase can be bowdlerized, he wrote, to “Be off with you and, for emphasis, take with you whatever brought you to this point.”

Shortly after that editorial appeared, the Daily Caller echoed it in substance. Bloomberg declared Yucca “set to be revived” and reported that two unnamed “people familiar with [President-elect] Trump’s transition planning say the issue is actively being discussed by advisers.” Bloomberg stipulated, though, that “analysts and advocates say it could take years to resurrect the teams of government workers focusing on the issue, secure an NRC [Nuclear Regulatory Commission] license for the project and clear other regulatory hurdles.”

Bloomberg’s piece was reprinted in Japan. In the San Diego Union-Tribune, it inspired a thorough news report outlining the issue’s history and framing it in terms of a local spent-fuel challenge.

Politico reported that positions on the Yucca project “do not fall exclusively along party lines.” The article gave examples: “Nevada Republican Sen. Dean Heller, who is expected to have a tough re-election race in 2018, has vowed to keep fighting the project. Meanwhile, Washington Sen. Patty Murray, the No. 4 Democrat in the Senate, told a dinner hosted by the U.S. Nuclear Infrastructure Council this summer that the next Congress would take on ‘meaningful nuclear waste reform, which includes a place for Yucca Mountain,’ according to an attendee.”

Forbes.com reported the view of physicist Robert Rosner—former Argonne National Laboratory director and founder of its Advanced Reactor Technologies program—that Yucca will be revived. At the Albuquerque Journal, an editorial advocated resuming the project.

But the media murmurings have already been much louder in Nevada itself—and unhappy. A week after the election, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported that Republican governor Brian Sandoval “said he isn’t going to abandon his longstanding opposition.” One passage reflected the deep resolve that thrives in Nevada:

Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., said in a statement that Trump and Republicans in Congress “must understand that Yucca Mountain is a boondoggle of epic proportions. It will cost taxpayers billions of dollars to complete and require years of construction and implementation.

“If it is ever finished, the industry will haul nuclear waste across nearly every congressional district in the country. With my new colleagues in Congress, I will continue to fight this project that is based on spurious science and bad politics.”

The Sierra Club and others criticized Trump’s only known comment on Yucca Mountain in a visit to Las Vegas in early October. When asked about the project then, Trump said: “I will tell you I’m going to take a look at it because so many people here are talking about it. I’ll take a look at it, and the next time you interview me, I’ll have an answer.”

The state Board of Examiners in July approved $2.5 million for Nevada to continue fighting the proposed high-level nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain. The contract with the Virginia legal firm Egan & Associates increased the maximum amount of the state’s bill to $7.5 million and extended it through Sept. 30, 2017.

The most important line in a subsequent Review-Journal news article said that “experts agree that a revival of the project … would be costly, technically challenging and politically complicated.” Citing Bloomberg’s report of interest among Trump’s advisers, the article said that executive director Bob Halstead of the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects “is among those who believe Trump will be hesitant to throw his support behind restarting Yucca Mountain.” The article quoted Halstead: “It’s dead as a doornail. The Trump administration is not going to be any friend to nuclear power. They’re oil-and-gas guys.” It also reported that the state of Nevada “has more than 200 technical challenges prepared” that would, according to Halstead, “really pose a big obstacle.”

At the Las Vegas Sun, an editorial indicting what the editors called “a catastrophe of a project” began, “Storing nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain is a horrible idea regardless of who’s in the Oval Office.” Here’s an illustrative passage:

The Yucca Mountain plan should be thrown on the scrap heap of historically bad ideas, like above-ground hydrogen bomb testing and nuclear-powered aircraft.

The science behind it is anything but conclusive, as proven by studies showing it’s flawed in terms of geology, chemistry and physics. Anyone who believes engineers have created a foolproof containment system is kidding themselves, given the complexities of storing waste for thousands of years amid the moisture in the mountain’s interior without leaking into the groundwater.

Then there are the inherent dangers of transporting tons of highly radioactive nuclear waste across the country to a single repository. Think of the risks posed by a terrorist attack or an accident involving a container.

Nowhere would the jeopardy be greater than southern Nevada.

A 2001 study by Clark County showed that property values in the Las Vegas Valley would drop 30 percent if the government began regularly transporting nuclear waste through the area, which stands to reason. A heightened risk of being irradiated isn’t exactly something that sends property buyers running to their lenders.

And that’s if there were no accident, meaning that merely opening the site and starting shipments would have roughly the same effect on the Las Vegas economy as the recession did. If an accident involving a radiation leak were to occur, the study said, the aftermath would be catastrophic. Beyond immediate injuries or deaths, there would be billions in long-term losses due to population outflow and damage to Las Vegas’ attraction to tourists.

That transportation-safety concern had dominated an August op-ed in the Sun by Judy Treichel, executive director of the Nevada Nuclear Waste Task Force, which calls itself “a non-profit organization fighting nuclear waste in Nevada and providing public information about Yucca Mountain.” She wrote:

If a train carrying nuclear waste wasn’t caught in a fire (or a landslide or some other calamity) and had to be diverted to a train yard until the rail line was secured and reopened, another problem would be posed: The casks are allowed to emit up to 10 millirems per hour, six feet away, or about the equivalent dose to a chest X-ray. So while the train waits it out, its train crews, truck drivers and facility workers could be subjected to the radiation doses emitting from the casks.

When queried about that paragraph’s assertion that “another problem would be posed,” health physicist Keith Welch in Newport News, Virginia—veteran of a long career in radiation safety—replied that it’s not a problem, but “a condition that is accounted for and factored into the routine, safe transport of millions of shipments of radioactive material every year.” He cited an Energy Department web page. In his email reply he added, “The problem she’s inventing is made of pure fearmongering.”

Especially adamant among Nevada’s public opponents is Sun owner, editor, and publisher Brian Greenspun. At the start of a commentary warning that “the zombie known as Yucca Mountain is rising from the dead,” he condemned “the nuclear power industry’s demand of Congress that it shove the nation’s high-level nuclear waste down Nevada’s Yucca Mountain for 30 years or more. Or should I say up our Yucca Mountain?”

Greenspun declared it “incomprehensible” that Nevadans “would be forced to accept the deadliest material known to man just a few miles from the heart of Las Vegas.” Actually, the envisioned deep geological repository is nearly a hundred miles distant. Maybe he was thinking of transportation accidents, a possibility that he later engaged this way: “By all accounts, if just one accident occurs in the 25 years of trucks and trainloads of nuclear waste that will travel our highways and rail lines into Nevada, the result will make the recession of just a few years ago look like a pillow fight.” By way of proof, he asserted, “The reports are out there. Read them.” He offered no citations or links.

Given current interest in how the country’s new president might arrange or divest his business affairs for avoiding conflicts of interest, something else that Greenspun engaged summons special attention. He wrote:

So here is the good news. This past week, President-elect Donald Trump announced the Presidential Inaugural Committee for his inauguration in January. On it are 20 of the nation’s top financial entrepreneurs and Trump supporters—people close to the president-elect who will have his ear, not just because they are helping to pay for his inauguration party but because they are friends.

Twenty percent of the list of President-elect Trump’s top supporters and friends are—wait for it—from Las Vegas! And one of them has been as vocal and meaningful an opponent of Yucca Mountain for the past three decades as anyone in the entire state.

Dr. Miriam Adelson and her husband, Sheldon, are on the committee. A longtime friend of Trump’s, Phil Ruffin, is on the committee. And Steve Wynn, who understood the dangers posed by Yucca Mountain since the plan was first foisted upon us a generation ago, is on the committee.

And each of those folks is a major owner of some of the best properties on the Las Vegas Strip….

Surely they can talk to their businessman friend in the White House in a language he will not only understand but will agree with. Yucca Mountain is bad for business, bad for people’s health and bad for anyone who owns a hotel in this state. Not to put too fine a point on it, but isn’t there a Trump Hotel on the Strip?

For the moment, give the last word to a 2004

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