Think we don't need Yucca Mountain? Think again

Getting quality leadership in our American democracy can be a bit of a crapshoot. Sometimes we’re lucky enough to get it, but often not. Good leadership is less important when the economy is vigorous and society stable. It’s harder to rock the boat on a smooth sea. However, when things are not A-1, as in America and much of the world today, quality leadership is vital.

For a period of about 30 years between the end of World War II and the 1970s, America enjoyed strong economic growth and prosperity. Then, for deep historical reasons, a long, slow economic decline began. During this period, America has needed quality leadership with vision and, with some exceptions, hasn’t gotten it. If you doubt this, think of Germany. That nation was reduced to ruins in World War II, and yet hasn’t declined. In 2011, Germany, with a population of about 80 million — a little more than one-third the size of America’s population — came close to matching us in exports.

Not Doing So Well

Sadly, the state of Nevada has been a victim in this vortex of poor leadership and economic under-performance. In my view, Nevada is one of the most poorly led states in the nation. It doesn’t matter, Democrat or Republican—few of our leaders seem to get it.

For example:

1. Nevada has the highest unemployment rate of any state, 9.5 percent. It’s 9.7 percent in Las Vegas.

2. Nevada ranks last or nearly last in percentage of high school freshmen who get a college degree, percentage of adult population with a bachelor’s or higher degree, and percentage of working-age population with a graduate degree. It ranks near the bottom in percentage of students who enroll in college and graduate in four years (14 percent) and six years (44 percent).

3. Nevada has no corporate tax and the tax rate on gaming is perhaps the lowest in the world. Low taxes on mining are written into the state’s constitution.

4. Nevada ranks dead last at 53rd among the states and territories when it comes to per capita receipt of federal “formula-based aid,” money for education, health care, housing, science, and transportation. In 2010, the average allocation to states was $2,085 per person. Wyoming received about $4,000, North Dakota $3,300, and Arizona beat the average with $2,200. Nevada received $1,400 per person, almost $700 below the average. That’s our tax money we’re not getting a fair share of.

For decades, Las Vegas was the preeminent gaming center in the world, which made it the driving force in the economic development of southern Nevada. In recent years, that No. 1 position has been taken over by Macau in China. It is unlikely Las Vegas will ever again be No. 1 in that industry. Las Vegas’s future in gaming growth seems unclear, especially given the role of Indian and Internet gaming in the United States. Obviously, major new economic endeavors are needed for Nevada.

$5.6 Billion Suggestion

Now, put all of this in the context of U.S. Representative John Shimkus’ (R-Illinois) recent suggestion that instead of the U.S. Department of Energy spending an estimated $5.6 billion searching for another storage site for spent nuclear fuel, why not give the money to Nevada to accept Yucca Mountain, which has been proven to be a safe site?

The response of Nevada’s Luddite-like leadership has been predictable. Representative Dina Titus said Nevada “is not for sale.” “Nevada is not a pimp,” another official emphasized.

Court of Appeals Decision

Two weeks after Representative Shimkus offered his suggestion, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) acted illegally when, beginning in 2008, it refused to consider, and eventually vote—up or down—on the Department of Energy’s recommendation that the federal government move forward with development of a repository at Yucca Mountain. The Department of Energy had spent $11 billion on the scientific assessment of the site, and the Nuclear Waste Policy Act passed by Congress and signed by President Reagan in 1983 required the NRC to evaluate the proposal. The NRC refused; Senator Harry Reid, of course, was the moving force behind the agency’s flouting of the law. He no doubt recognized there was a good chance the NRC would approve Yucca Mountain. He was desperate.

In my view, the development of Yucca Mountain could amount to one of the top three events in Nevada history, up there with the discovery of the Comstock in 1859 and the legalization of gambling in 1931. Because of its great potential for moving Nevada forward, I would put Yucca Mountain ahead of nuclear weapons testing at the Nevada Test Site beginning in 1951 and the construction of Hoover Dam in the 1930s.

Announcement of the federal court’s decision brought the expected comments by Nevada’s no-can-do leadership, good at obstruction but not so skilled at building a future. Governor Brian Sandoval said he was “very disappointed” in the ruling. Representative Dina Titus, no expert on nuclear power, indicated she planned to write the NRC indicating reasons why Yucca Mountain should not be licensed. Senator Dean Heller suggested the court’s ruling serves “as an example why Yucca Mountain needs to be taken off the table once and for all.” One can only wonder what big things Senator Heller would put on the table for Nevada in place of Yucca Mountain.

And Senator Harry Reid, whose single-issue political career has been built around his opposition to Yucca Mountain and should have been easily defeated in his re-election bid in 2012 if only the Republican Party had offered an opponent with any capacity for responsible leadership, is quoted as saying “this decision means nothing.” For my money, that comment is one of the most reprehensible in memory by a major American politician. For the Majority Leader of the United States Senate to state that a major decision by a federal court “means nothing” shows a fundamental disregard for the law and our nation’s legislative and judicial processes. Is it any wonder he is so inept at furthering Nevada’s economic and social interests? The court’s decision, by the way, makes very interesting reading and shows how legally off-base Senator Reid and company have been.

Writing on the court’s decision in the Washington Post, columnist George F. Will states, “Nowadays the federal government leavens its usual quotient of incompetence with a large dollop of illegality. ... The episode is a snapshot of contemporary Washington—small, devious people putting their lawlessness in the service of their parochialism by sacrificing public safety and constitutional process.” The Denver Post said, “It turns out the [Obama] administration can’t simply ignore the law it doesn’t like.”

Looking to the Future

May I suggest, quite aside from Senator Reid and his no-can-do colleagues’ behavior, there is a good chance Yucca Mountain will be approved in the not-too-distant future? If left to a fair vote in Congress, it would pass today and President Obama would have no good reason not to sign it. It’s simply too good and important a concept not to become a reality in these troubled times. Remember, approximately 73,700 tons of spent nuclear fuel is currently stored at 75 sites in 33 states—some in close proximity to densely populated urban areas. It needs to be put into a permanent storage facility that has been scientifically demonstrated to be safe: Yucca Mountain.

On the other hand, if Yucca Mountain should not be approved, I seriously wonder how Nevada is going to move forward. Solar energy? I doubt it. Senator Reid had a shot at that one, but China and Germany seemed to have nailed down the technology there. I’m all for solar energy, but there just aren’t that many jobs in solar once the plants have been constructed. The same is true of wind and geothermal energy.

Moreover, the economics of all three are not practical as the main energy source for a power-hungry world where global energy demand is expected to grow by more than 50 percent by 2040. Once a carbon tax is placed on fossil fuels, nuclear will be the most economical and environmentally friendly major energy source available widely. See Eduardo Porter’s outstanding piece on nuclear power and its future in the August 21, 2013, New York Times.

Recognize that in the future spent nuclear fuel will be reprocessed, then “reburned” in new models of nuclear reactors, reducing the amount of waste requiring long-term storage to a small fraction of its original volume. Recognize also that the Nevada Test Site (a.k.a. NNSS) is an ideal place for development and construction of spent fuel reprocessing facilities and construction of new types of nuclear power plants, as well as existing models of reactors. Some of these new nuclear power plants will fit on the back of a large truck, need little maintenance, and last for decades.

The Nevada Test Site has the potential to become a major power production center for the Western United States. Reactors for use around the world could be developed and manufactured there. Because science and technology development in a locality attracts more science and technology development, with quality leadership, Yucca Mountain will give southern Nevada the opportunity to grow into a world-class center for science research and technology development, and, of special importance, science education—think science programming and museums. Yucca Mountain can serve as a seedbed for developing a knowledge-based industry in Nevada aimed at improving the future of the human race, not just through nuclear power but all types of science. With quality leadership, a wide range of organizations doing research in fields other than nuclear energy will be predisposed to locate in our area in the decades ahead, bringing great benefits to the economy and social life in southern Nevada. Moreover, this need not impair in any way the continued growth of tourism in Nevada; in fact, it would enhance it. But it will take leadership, vision, and a can-do spirit on the part of our statewide leaders.