Yucca Mountain dump: Dead or undead?

By: - April 12, 2019 12:49 pm
yucca fatigue tho

View to the south of Yucca Mountain crest showing coring activities in 2006. Nevada has been fighting the dump for nearly 40 years. (DOE photo)

WASHINGTON — There is a renewed push in Washington to reopen the debate on Yucca Mountain, with the Trump administration and some lawmakers seeing what they think is an opportunity this year to try to advance the project’s long-stalled licensing process.

“It does appear we are on the cusp of actually getting something through,” Rep. Fred Upton told lawmakers earlier this week. The Michigan Republican spoke at a House Appropriations Committee hearing, where he and several other members of Congress requested funding to move forward on Yucca Mountain.

“It is time to get [nuclear waste] off of sensitive environmental areas and into one safe place,” Upton said. “We have well over 300 votes on the House floor that would support this and it is time to actually deliver. We have a president that will sign this. We need to take action.”

But Nevada lawmakers are united to try to kill the effort.

“Nevada continues to oppose any and all attempts to fund Yucca Mountain,” Rep. Steven Horsford (D-Nev.) told Nevada Current in an interview. “Obviously, we have fought this battle for many decades and we will not give in or give up at this point.”

At issue is the contentious question of what to do with the nuclear waste that is the byproduct of nuclear power plants. There are currently 80,000 metric tons of it in temporary storage around the U.S., but most experts recommend a consolidated, closely monitored, long-term storage site.

Congress required the Department of Energy to find a long-term storage site as part of the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act, or as it’s often referred to in Nevada, the “Screw Nevada” bill. Yucca has been the only site on the government’s list for “deep geological disposal” of nuclear waste for more than 30 years.

The Department of Energy has plowed billions of dollars and years of research in the site. But Nevada lawmakers say that storing nuclear waste at Yucca is not safe, given concerns about seismic activity, shipment, storage and nearby military training. The Obama administration froze the project.

“Congress has already wasted $15 billion on this doomed project and we should not waste a penny more,” Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.) told lawmakers this week.

Upton and other lawmakers have their own incentives to move forward on Yucca. Michigan has three active nuclear sites and one that has been closed for 40 years but still hosts spent fuel.

There are 121 sites in 39 states with spent nuclear fuel.

“This is a tragedy waiting to happen,” said Rep. Jerry McNerny (D-Calif.), who is concerned about nuclear waste near water and fault lines in his state. “Nuclear waste has engineering solutions. This is a political problem.”

“We’ve taken, I don’t know, a gazillion votes on the floor since I have been here on Yucca mountain and it always gets 300 or so votes. It’s bipartisan,” said Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho). “Politics has stopped us from solving this problem and we need to just move on and get it done.”

Nevada power shifts

The political landscape has been one in which Nevada had powerful advocates in Congress.

Nevada lawmakers have successfully stalled progress on the project by blocking funding for the effort. The state’s delegation was able to do so with years of leadership from powerful members like former Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who was the top Democrat in the Senate.

Titus, the dean of Nevada’s U.S. House delegation, said it is a loss to be “playing without Sen. Reid.” But another new development this year is the Democratic majority in the House, which she says is “encouraging” and strengthens her position. Nevada Democrats said they expect House leadership to support them.

“We have stopped it before, and we are working on stopping it again,” Titus said in an interview.

The Nevada delegation has requested specific language in the spending bill that would block the federal government from moving forward with Yucca.

But they do face some political challenges. Senate Republicans blocked Yucca funding last year in an effort to save the re-election bid of former Senator Dean Heller (R-Nev.). He lost the election.

Nevada now has two Democrats in a Senate with Republican control, and lawmakers said they expect the Senate to debate the issue this year — a change from the recent past.

The Trump administration is also pushing to move the issue forward. The Trump administration’s budget proposal for next year requests $116 million to restart the licensing process for Yucca. Some experts who track the issue think Yucca also has a powerful supporter in Mick Mulvaney, the chief of the Office of Management and Budget, who in the past pushed to get nuclear waste out of temporary storage in his home state of North Carolina.

President Trump himself has sent mixed messages. He did not take a stance on Yucca during his campaign but said last fall at an event in Elko, Nev., that he would “be inclined to be against it.”

“I think you should do things where people want them,” Trump told KRNV-News4 in October.

But Energy Secretary Rick Perry said the administration has to press on, regardless of those feelings.  

“What we all have to recognize here is Yucca Mountain is the law, and I am going to follow the law,” Perry said in response to questions last week from Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.).

“It’s not an issue of what someone thinks or what someone necessarily desires. I am going to follow the law.”

Nevada lawmakers and Gov. Steve Sisolak form a solid opposition block. But some counties closest to the Yucca site have supported moving forward with the review. The Nye County Commission sent a letter late last year to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) asking him to fund the review process so they could move forward with Yucca. The county hopes to benefit financially from the project.

For their part, Upton and other lawmakers are pressing the House Appropriations Committee to allocate the $116 million to reopen a review process for Yucca. The appropriations panel holds the purse-strings for the government and is tasked with drafting annual spending bills.

“It is important we show our stuff in the House,” Upton said. “This is the opportunity to embark on this, and we need to do it early in the year so we can get this stuff off the shores of Lake Michigan.”

The chairwoman of the House appropriations subcommittee that will draft the spending bill, Ohio Democratic Rep. Marcy Kaptur, is not a strong supporter of Yucca. She said she would like to find an interim storage solution as a first step. But Rep. Chuck Fleischmann (R-Tenn.), a member of that panel, said he would “do everything we can to get this funded.”

“Yucca needs to be done,” he said.

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Allison Winter
Allison Winter

Allison Winter is a Washington D.C. correspondent for States Newsroom, a network of state-based nonprofit news outlets that includes the Nevada Current.