Long-Running Yucca Mountain Debate Still Center of Nuclear Waste Fight

May 24, 2019
Originally published on May 30, 2019 7:11 am

It's been more than thirty years since Yucca Mountain in Nevada was picked as the nation's nuclear waste site, and the state has been fighting the project ever since. Under President Obama, it got its wish.

Fast forward to the Trump administration, and that long-running debate is back on the table.

Pahrump, Nevada is one of the closest towns to Yucca Mountain, which sits in Nye County--one of the poorest areas in the state. Marilyn Davis moved there 18 years ago.

"There's a lot of history," she says. "There's a lot of good things that happened here."

Like many people in this small town of around 36,000, Davis supports opening the waste site.

"It will never have houses. There will never be people living there. So why not use it and do something useful with the property?" she asks.

Davis runs the museum and historical society in town. She strolls past historical artifacts to the central exhibit: the history of Yucca Mountain and nuclear testing.

"This is just an overall picture of what's actually Yucca Mountain," she says.

If you're wondering, Yucca Mountain is an actual mountain. The idea is that holes and tunnels would be drilled into it to hold the waste. Yucca Mountain has never actually housed any waste. Before the repository was defunded under the Obama administration, the feds spent the years before studying how the project would actually work.

Down the road from the museum, Meghan Thomas manages a local hardware store. She's also a supporter of the project.

"Anything that would help our economy would be great," she says. "This town needs some fresh blood and some new businesses."

Thomas grew up in Pahrump and was a teenager when the project was defunded. That means much of the roughly 90,000 metric tons of the nation's nuclear waste continues to be stored where it's produced, in places like Florida and Ohio. And in the Mountain West, nuclear waste is stored in Idaho, Utah and Colorado.

The Trump administration says it just makes sense to have a central repository, and there's a lot of congressional interest in that idea. The U.S. House Appropriations Committee recently debated the issue, where Idaho Republican Mike Simpson proposed an amendment to re-fund the project.

"It is time to stop the needless delays in this process," he told the committee. "48 out of 53 of us on this committee have nuclear waste in our states."

He may want it out of Idaho, but not everyone in Nevada wants to take it. The Western Shoshone Nation says the land is sacred and should not be poisoned. And Nevada Democratic Senator Jacky Rosen has several concerns.

"It's hard to imagine that shipping over 5,000 truck casks of high-level nuclear waste over a span of 50 years won't result in at least one radiological release," she says.

Not to mention, she says that Yucca Mountain is next to the nation's largest Air Force live munitions testing area.

"So does it really make sense to transport and store our nation's nuclear waste right next to a military bombing range?" she asks.

There's also a big elephant in the room: trust--or lack of it. Abby Johnson works with neighboring Eureka County, which is neutral on the project.

"With above and underground nuclear weapons testing, people in Nevada had already experienced being lied to by the federal government, and had had their families poisoned by fallout from the atomic bombs," she says.

Some Nevadans are willing to move past that distrust. Darrell Lacy is the director of the Nuclear Waste Repository Project Office in Nye County. He says the site offers a chance to get federal dollars for key services.

"Transportation issues are something we talk a lot about, improved highways," he says. "Let the federal government pay for it as part of the Yucca Mountain project."

As for transporting spent nuclear fuel, that happens safely all the time he says. He's more worried about the current patchwork of nuclear waste storage across the nation.

"There's 15 or so shut-down nuclear power plants today that have waste sitting on concrete pads behind a chain link fence with a couple of rent-a-cops," he says.

Nye County Commissioner Leo Blundo agrees with Lacy's position. He recently submitted a letter to the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, urging Congress to put funding toward the Yucca Mountain project.

"We've been dealt a hand, and now you have to make the best of it. You gotta turn lemons into lemonade," he says.

Blundo says Nevada could adopt a similar idea to Alaska's Permanent Fund, which pays Alaska residents regular dividends from oil revenues. For Nevadans, it would be nuclear waste dividends.

Overall, he sees the project as a unique opportunity.

"We could have post-secondary education: UNLV School of Nuclear Engineering, Nuclear Physics and Nuclear Reprocessing," he says. "We could take it all a step further. I want to be reprocessing this material as fast as it's coming in. Reprocessing it, and getting it out of Nevada," he says.

In a 27-25 vote, the U.S. House Appropriations Committee decided against re-funding the Yucca Mountain project. But the Senate is still considering it, and supporters and opponents both say the fight isn't over yet.

Nuclear Waste Transportation: How Does it Work? (in photos)

Spent nuclear fuel comes in small, solid pellets. These pellets are then stacked on top of each other and stored in metal tubes.

The nuclear waste is stacked and stored in these large, long, metal tubes.

The metal tubes are then placed into large transportation casks, with layers of lead and concrete to contain the nuclear material.

The transportation casks are then placed on trucks and rail lines, with shock absorbers and additional layers of concrete to keep nuclear waste still.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUER in Salt Lake City, and KRCC and KUNR in Colorado.

Copyright 2019 KUNR. For more, visit kunr.org.

Copyright 2019 KUNR Public Radio. To see more, visit KUNR Public Radio.