Nye County presses for Yucca licensing

Nye County officials asked the Interim Legislative Committee on High-Level Radioactive Waste in Las Vegas to support the licensing proceeding of the proposed nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain.

During the comment period that spanned more than one hour on April 27, commenters in Las Vegas and Carson City voiced their opinions on Yucca Mountain. The committee’s meeting took place amid renewed efforts in Washington, D.C. to restart the licensing proceeding of the proposed geologic nuclear waste repository 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

Representatives from Nye and Lincoln counties spoke in support of the licensing restart. Both counties, along with seven other rural counties in Nevada, support finishing the licensing application of Yucca Mountain.

Darrell Lacy, Nye County Nuclear Waste Repository Project director, said Nye County’s expectation is that “the decisions are made on a scientific basis, fully transparent,” and address the issues voiced at the meeting.

“We would hope that this board would support moving forward with the licensing proceeding so that the technical issues can be resolved on a fully transparent basis,” Lacy said.

Lacy reminded the committee that Yucca Mountain by law is a retrievable repository.

“Once the material is here in Nevada, if there are other technologies or opportunities for us to benefit from reprocessing from using this as fuel at other reactors, that’s one of the reasons why it was a retrievable repository and it’s the only option that we currently have in the U.S.,” Lacy said.

Officials in Nye County, the home of Yucca Mountain, have been supportive of the Trump administration’s attempts over the past year to bring the project back to life. County’s officials cite economic benefits that the county could get, should the project go forward.

Connie Simpkins, who spoke on behalf of Lincoln County commissioners and the town of Caliente, said “money has to take the back seat to the health and welfare” of the county’s citizens.

Lincoln County is home to the town of Caliente, which gave a name to the proposed east-west transportation route to Yucca Mountain. The county received Yucca Mountain funding in 2012 and would require additional money to be able to participate in activities associated with Yucca Mountain, should the project be resurrected, Simpkins said.

“Lincoln County and Caliente ask this committee to support the science of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, finishing the DOE licensing application review,” Simpkins said.

“If this project is coming, we must be prepared to protect our citizens, health, and welfare,” Simpkins said.

Others comment

While some called Yucca Mountain an opportunity for Nevada to become a leader in nuclear technology and reprocessing, others voiced their concerns about the transportation of nuclear waste and potential dangers to the health and safety of the state’s residents.

The Obama administration mothballed the proposed geologic repository inside the Nye County mountain at the urging of then-Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nevada, in 2011. President Donald Trump proposed $120,000 million for the Yucca Mountain licensing proceeding. Congress, however, didn’t include any funding for the proposed nuclear waste repository in its omnibus spending bill that was passed in March, leaving the proposed licensing restart in limbo.

The opponents of the project questioned why Nevada, that doesn’t have any nuclear reactors, should bear the brunt for the states that have nuclear waste. They also pointed to potential risks of transporting nuclear waste through Las Vegas and said the project would pose threats to the health of Nevadans and groundwater in the area of Yucca Mountain.

Ian Zabrate, a principal for the western band of the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe, reminded the committee that Yucca Mountain is within the Western Shoshone treaty territory, which was designated by the Treaty of Ruby Valley of 1863.

“Yucca Mountain is owned by the Shoshone, and so are the water rights owned by the Shoshone nation, and because of our past exposure to radiation from atmospheric weapons testing, we can’t ignore any increased burden of risk from any source, including a proposed repository,” Zabarte said.

Kerrie Kramer, government affairs analyst with Las Vegas law firm Fennemore Craig, who spoke on behalf of the Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber, along with its partners such as the city of Las Vegas, are opposed to the transportation and storage of any nuclear waste in Nevada because of the potential negative effect it could have on the safety and health of the residents of Southern Nevada.

“Risk of potential terrorist threats, environmental impact, transportation challenges and the safety of storing nuclear waste material are too great a risk for our region’s economy,” Kramer said.

Patrick Donnelly, field biologist and a member of the board of directors of Basin and Range Watch, a Beatty-based non-profit, focused on the potential impacts to the biodiversity in the area surrounding Yucca Mountain. Donnelly cited potential threats to the Amargosa River, which is fed by groundwater and is home to a large number of endemic species.

“There are literally two dozen species that live at Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in Nye County and live nowhere else in the world. … Make no mistake, groundwater contamination from Yucca Mountain discharging in the springs that harbor these species would drive them to extinction,” Donnelly said.

He encouraged the interim committee to recommend that any future licensing proceedings evaluate the research and commence formal consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to examine the impacts of Yucca Mountain on federally protected species – something that has never been done before.

Waste in U.S.

Proponents of Yucca Mountain pointed to nuclear waste piling up around the country. The U.S. doesn’t have a centralized nuclear waste storage while over 77,000 metric tons of high-level nuclear waste and spent nuclear fuel is stored across the country. Those in favor of the project also said the state of Nevada could benefit from potential jobs and infrastructure development associated with Yucca Mountain.

Some suggested that Yucca Mountain should be used for nuclear waste reprocessing. Unlike some countries such as France, China, and Russia, the U.S. doesn’t reprocess nuclear waste, a process that separates plutonium and uranium from other nuclear waste in the spent fuel. The separated plutonium can be used to power nuclear reactors.

Mary Rooney, of Henderson, said the leadership in Nevada “doesn’t seem to want to recognize the huge advances” in nuclear technology.

“The choice here is clear: We can reprocess, recycle the spent fuel rods. And not only will we do away with the currently spent fuel rods that we have but with the advances in nuclear technology, we won’t be creating any new problems,” Rooney said.

Yucca Mountain was designated by Congress in 1987 as the sole site to store the nation’s nuclear waste. The Department of Energy spent $15 billion to study the site, which involved constructing a five-mile exploratory tunnel inside Yucca Mountain. No waste handling facilities or waste disposal tunnels were constructed at Yucca Mountain.

The Government Accountability Office, the nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress estimated in its 2017 report that restarting the licensing proceeding could cost over $330 million.

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