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FROM THE EDITOR: Yucca Mountain project looks different from here

I am quickly learning the opinion of Yucca Mountain depends greatly on which side of the Spring Mountains one lives.

Since moving to Las Vegas in 1990, I had seen the proposed nuclear waste repository as something the entire state of Nevada was against and the federal government was forcing down our collective Silver State throats.

I’ve been out to the site once. It was either in 2005 or 2006 for a press conference when I was a reporter for the Las Vegas Business Press. I didn’t get to go into the mountain, but standing at the mouth of the tunnel gave a small sense of the impressive engineering that laid beyond.

A five-mile tunnel was drilled through the mountain in 1994. Three years later the feds were heating up buried metal containers to study the impact on water and rock in the immediate area. In 2004, in a case brought by the state, the federal Court of Appeals in Washington ruled the government needed to show the mountain would contain the waste basically forever, not the 10,000 years that the Energy Department was planning. This was around the time the department had already concluded that the period of peak releases would be in about 300,000 years.

It is that jumping off point that Yucca Mountain has been thrust back into the national limelight. A report was released in October by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission of a suitability report stating the site design met the commission’s requirement as a disposal space for nuclear waste.

According to the New York Times, Timothy Frazier, a former Energy Department official who heads the nuclear waste program at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a nonprofit Washington group, said the report “makes it hard, based on what they’ve written, for someone to say that Yucca Mountain is not technically acceptable.”

Frazier then added, “If the Senate flips (to Republicans), you’re going to get money in the Senate appropriations bill to do something for Yucca Mountain.”

Well, the Senate flipped Nov. 4. The Republicans overwhelmingly swung control of the U.S. Senate back to their control Nov. 4. The national GOP have wanted Yucca Mountain to store spent nuclear reactor fuel and other high-level radioactive waste. But even prior to the Republican victories a few weeks ago, the ball started rolling in anticipation.

The report and election has sent Nevada scrambling. In Wednesday’s Pahrump Valley Times, it was reported that the Nevada Commission on Nuclear Projects began a preemptive push back, approving a 44-page report of its own stating Yucca Mountain is an “unsuitable site for the permanent disposal of high-level nuclear waste.” The report comes a few months after the state allocated approximately $1.4 million to fight Yucca Mountain.

That amount pales to the more than $14 billion the federal government has spent studying the volcanic feature mountain range for nuclear waste disposal. Federal taxpayers are in deep on this project, while Nevada taxpayers are writing checks to keep it out.

But while state officials and some federal allies, led by soon-to-be Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, continue to push back, Nye County officials continue to see Yucca Mountain as an economic opportunity for an area that is lacking in economic opportunities.

Nye County has specific oversight responsibilities as part of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, including participation as one of the affected units of local government surrounding the repository site and as the recipient of Payment Equal to Taxes for being the host county. Nye County signed a series of five-year settlement agreements with the feds brought revenue to the county, the most being $11.25 million in 2007.

Darrell Lacy, head of the Nye County planNuclear Waste Repository Office, was at the Monday meeting of the Nevada Commission on Nuclear Projects supporting the federal government’s latest suitability report.

He admitted during the meeting Nye County’s viewpoint on Yucca is often at odds with that of the rest of the state’s.

Nye County Commissioner Dan Schinhofen has also been supportive of the federal report, urging the federal government to now push for the project’s restart.

“It is our expectation that the Department of Energy will now comply with existing law and court rulings and restart the Yucca Mountain licensing review,” Schinhofen wrote in an Oct. 17 letter to U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz.

One of the issues I never realized while living and working in Las Vegas is that Yucca was never described as the best place for burying nuclear waste. The Energy Department selected the location as one of five candidate sites in 1986, but Congress designated it as the prime site the following year, leaving it alone as the only site to be studied until is was found unsuitable.

And here we are 27 years later with the issue yet to be resolved.

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