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FROM THE EDITOR: Life coming full circle under Yucca Mountain’s shadow

Life has an odd way of coming full circle.

When I was a boy growing up in Tennessee, my father was doing records management for the nuclear industry, and the popular Republican state governor was Lamar Alexander.

Soon after I left the Volunteer state in 1990, Mr. Knightly was working on records management procedures for a new project in the middle of the Nevada desert called Yucca Mountain.

While my dad has long since retired, now U.S. Sen. Alexander is ready to push Yucca Mountain back on track as the new chairman of the Senate energy and water subcommittee. Despite Nevada’s own Harry Reid claiming the project “will never see the light of day,” Alexander said yesterday he would convene a series of hearings on nuclear power.

As reported by Steve Tetreault in today’s front-page story, “There is a renewed hope under our Republican majority that we can solve the 25-year-old stalemate on what to do with waste from our nuclear reactors – and Yucca Mountain can and should be part of the solution.”

Alexander has good reason to push storing nuclear waste at Yucca forward. His state has three nuclear plants operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority, where my dad worked for its nuclear program 11 years in Knoxville and Oak Ridge, and is building a fourth. Despite an expansive dam system along the Tennessee River and its tributaries, 36 percent of the state’s electricity comes from nuclear power. That waste is currently sitting in temporary holding facilities with an eye to the 77,000-ton capacity site 2,100 miles west.

As I’ve said in a prior column, I’ve never understood the state’s great pushback against storing the nuclear waste here in Nye County, even before I became this newspaper’s editor in October. Maybe that is because I grew up in a house involved with the industry.

Prior to joining the Tennessee Valley Authority, my father worked at another hotbed of nuclear research, Oak Ridge. We all know Oak Ridge from history as the place where part of the Manhattan Project was conducted, which led to the building of nuclear bombs used in World War II.

Mr. Knightly arrived in 1979 to work on records management at the Clinch River Breeder Reactor project, which lost federal funding in 1983. The same year my dad was recruited from his teaching post at the University of Tennessee (my dad has a doctorate in library science), Alexander was elected governor of Tennessee.

My dad’s first eight years of a nearly two-decade career in the nuclear industry in Tennessee was while Alexander was governor.

Parallel lives.

Alexander is not the only one outside the state with an active eye on Yucca.

Massachusetts state Sen. Vinny deMacedo wrote a letter to the Commonwealth’s Attorney General seeking to discuss what he said is the federal government’s failure to provide a solution for the nuclear waste produced at the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station, which is currently storing on site. He wants that state’s AG to file a lawsuit against the federal government.

In his letter, deMacedo said, “In April of 2011, the Obama administration terminated funding for the Yucca Mountain waste site. As a direct result, all civilian nuclear sites in the U.S., including the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station, do not currently have a long-term storage site, facility or alternative other than on-site storage.”

Despite Republican pressure, the president does not seem moved on the issue of Yucca, again proposing zero funding for the project in the newly released fiscal 2016 federal budget.

U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest J. Moniz said Tuesday the department wants to find alternatives to the stalled project because waste is growing at reactors.

Moniz’s comments came a few days after the Nuclear Regulatory Commission completed the last two of five volumes in its safety evaluation report on a nuclear waste repository at Yucca. While the commission has not finished the licensing process, the report allows the nation to move forward with a long-term plan for managing nuclear waste from commercial power plants and national security activities.

Against this backdrop, Nye County has rehired the Washington D.C. lobbying firm Akerman Senterfitt to push the county’s interest in Yucca Mountain on Capitol Hill.

The firm, which had worked on the county’s behalf for years, was not part of the last budget cycle because there was no movement on the Yucca project.

“Once the Congress went Republican, we saw there was some possible hope for Yucca Mountain,” County Manager Pam Webster told me. “They monitor the Hill and tell us what is going on with different Congressional opinions.”

From my childhood in Tennessee growing up around nuclear power with Gov. Alexander, to adulthood overseeing the newspaper in Nye County and Sen. Alexander taking the lead on Yucca Mountain, life has a strange way of coming full circle.

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