U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto made her first trip to Yucca Mountain as a U.S. senator recently to highlight how little has changed since her last visit.
With a CBS News crew in tow, the Nevada Democrat and former state attorney general toured parts of the project’s 5-mile exploratory tunnel and took in the view from the crest of the mountain 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas in Nye County.
A 1987 law designated Yucca Mountain as the permanent storage site for the nation’s spent nuclear fuel, but work there halted almost a decade ago after Congress and the Obama administration cut off funding for the project and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s review of its 2008 license application.
“I came out here when I was AG, and it looked like this. No different,” Cortez Masto, D-Nevada, said. “There’s nothing happening here.”
As Nevada’s senior senator, she hopes to keep it that way.
“We’re going to be talking to some of my colleagues about why Yucca is a non-starter and why we need to think of another policy, why consent-based siting is so important and science is important and why we as a country should be moving off of this,” Cortez Masto said.
Nevada’s federal and state officeholders, Republican and Democratic, have long opposed the Department of Energy project, as have tribal leaders, business groups and environmentalists. Officials in Nye County, where Yucca Mountain is located, support further scientific and licensing work on the repository.
Bradley Crowell, director of the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, said it is a risk the nation shouldn’t take and a burden Nevada shouldn’t have to bear.
“We don’t generate any nuclear waste in Nevada. We don’t have any commercial nuclear power, so it’s all coming from other places all across the country. That represents a safety risk as well,” said Crowell, who joined Cortez Masto. “It’s hundreds and hundreds of shipments over rail and road that would have to come to Nevada to put the waste here.”
William Boyle, the U.S. Energy Department’s director of radioactive waste science and technology, guided the made-for-TV tour and politely debated Cortez Masto and company for the CBS News cameras.
The site visit came less than a week after Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said he will seek an up-or-down vote on Yucca Mountain this year before he writes spending legislation to revive the project.
“We’ve had about a 35-year stalemate on this issue, and it’s time to break up the stalemate and come to a decision,” Alexander told the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
Then on May 29, U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., renewed his call to “end the political games” and complete the licensing process for the repository in Nevada.
Political state of play
Opponents of the project scored a victory in May, when the House Appropriations Committee blocked funding for the license review.
When asked about Alexander’s call for a decisive vote on the matter, Cortez Masto said, “We’re going to fight and do everything we can to make sure that that doesn’t happen.”
She said opponents in Nevada are not the ones “playing politics” with the nuclear waste issue.
“The politics of it is why we’re here today, because it got rammed down our throats,” Cortez Masto said.
The occasional tour is about all the activity Yucca Mountain sees these days.
Site custodian Bob Clark said he and his crew check on the site once a week and only go inside the tunnel every other week or so, mostly to look for errant wildlife or other problems.
Several owls have taken up residence in and around the tunnel’s south portal, and a songbird appears to be nesting inside the 25-foot-tall tunnel boring machine that has been parked at the site since it finished digging in 1996.
Clark said he once followed a perfect set of bobcat tracks two miles into the dusty tunnel but never saw the animal that made them.
Near the north portal, a pair of tent warehouses have been shredded by the wind, adding to the abandoned feel of the place.
Clark could only shrug. “No money to fix them,” he said.
Despite overwhelming opposition by the state to the Yucca Mountain project, officials in the host county, Nye, support the resumption of the licensing process to determine if the site is safe.
On April 30, Nye County Commissioner Leo Blundo wrote a letter to Barrasso and U.S. Sen. Thomas R. Carper, D-Delaware, the chairman and ranking member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.
“On behalf of the Nye County Commission, along with eight other Nevada counties (out of a total of 17) I strongly urge you to support the Senate bill to jump-start the licensing hearing for the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository,” Blundo wrote. “This position is in accordance with the law, supports the objective scientific studies on the safety of the repository and has the support of local governments in Nevada. It is the right thing to do.”
Blundo also wrote: “Despite the claims by the state of Nevada that everyone in the state opposes the license proceeding, nine of the rural counties that surround Yucca Mountain favor the resumption of the license proceeding. Nye County — the site county — has favored a full and fair review of the science by the NRC for years. We want decisions to be made on Yucca Mountain to be based on facts and science and not empty rhetoric and fear mongering. “
“As long as Yucca Mountain is stalled, nuclear waste is gathering at existing and closed nuclear power plants all over the country. It is far better for the American public to have the waste stored safely in a remote desert mountain than to be in locations near population centers, lakes and rivers,” Blundo said.