McCracken: Power change could push funding to state, Yucca Mountain

The retirement of U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, a new U.S. president, and a Republican-controlled Congress could mean changes for the Yucca Mountain Project? This is the second part of a two-part column.

Since the passage of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act in 1982, Yucca Mountain has been intensively studied for its suitability as a site for permanent storage of high-level nuclear waste. By some estimates, $15 billion has been spent on the effort. Yucca Mountain is by far the most thoroughly studied piece of real estate on our planet. With all this effort, nothing is known to have been found that would compromise it as a permanent repository site.

Once all the necessary research, costing billions of dollars, was completed, results were summarized in five large volumes and submitted to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for review.

If the law had been followed, a decision would have been made regarding whether or not the research findings justified Yucca Mountain’s selection for construction of a high-level nuclear waste repository.

The commission’s decision was to be either thumbs up or down. If down, the effort would go back to square one regarding where to place the nation’s high-level nuclear waste. If thumbs up, construction would begin.

Meanwhile, spent nuclear fuel has been accumulating in temporary storage at America’s nuclear power plants at the rate of 2,000 tons per year, with the total volume of accumulated waste nearing the legislated storage capacity of the selected site.

Many of those temporary storage sites are located not that far from some of America’s largest cities, like 30 miles from New York City and Chicago. Too dangerous for Yucca Mountain, but not for our big cities.

In the meantime, despite the financial shutdown of the Yucca Mountain evaluation effort, the federal government continued until 2014 to collect the tax on production of nuclear power intended to pay for the waste storage program.

About $30 billion is presently credited to that account. Unfortunately, most observers believe that money is long gone, having ended up offsetting spending in the general fund. Another cost to the nation of the naysayers’ actions.

Back on Track

With Harry Reid in retirement, a new president in the White House, and the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate under the control of Republicans, who tend to look on nuclear power with more favor than Democrats, there is growing optimism that Yucca Mountain may soon get back on track.

One potentially important new consideration is the selection of former Texas Governor Rick Perry by President Trump to become Secretary of Energy. There are those in Texas who strongly desire development in their state of a temporary high-level nuclear waste storage facility for use until a permanent site becomes available.

Would Secretary Perry advocate for this? Perhaps. But some observers say many in Texas would be opposed to a temporary site unless a permanent site was under construction.

And what about construction of a permanent disposal site in Texas? That would take the entire permanent site evaluation process back to the beginning at the cost of many additional billions of dollars with years of additional delay and uncertainty. Why go down that road again?

Construction of a temporary high-level nuclear waste storage site has been estimated to cost $5.6 billion.

At some point, hopefully not too far in the future, waste stored there would have to be transferred to a permanent site. This would involve additional costs that would have to be paid by future generations of Americans.

How ethical is it for Americans who have enjoyed the benefits of the energy that led to the existing nuclear waste to kick the costs of permanent storage down the road for future generations to pay? Not to mention the things that could go wrong between now and then.

It is best to solve the high-level nuclear waste problem now at the least cost and let future generations deal with their own problems, which doubtless will be many.

Solving the Problem

The high-level nuclear waste problem has become much more solvable both economically and politically now that Nevada Senator Harry Reid has retired and is no longer around to gum up the works.

The problem of permanent disposal of high-level nuclear waste can best be solved as follows.

Representative John Shimkus, Republican from Illinois, Chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy, is a strong supporter of Yucca Mountain. He believes any agreement on nuclear waste storage needs to have a connection to Yucca Mountain.

He is quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying, “We cannot have a serious conversation about solving America’s nuclear waste problems without talking about Yucca Mountain.”

He is critical of President Obama’s bottling up of the program. He says, “There remains a gaping hole in this implementation plan because President Obama precluded the commission from considering Yucca Mountain in its report. The Blue Ribbon Commission emphasized the need for a long-term storage repository, and Yucca Mountain remains the most visible and thoroughly studied option.”

At a hearing before his Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy in which Energy Secretary Moniz testified on July 31, 2013, Rep. Shimkus suggested that the $5.6 billion cost of a temporary storage facility could go to Nevada.

“Why not offer this money to Nevada?” Shimkus asked.

Secretary Moniz replied, “Any state and community can come forward.”

Representative Shimkus noted, “Part of the problem with the State of Nevada is they say show me the money. We don’t believe you will follow through and there are not going to be any additional benefits. Wouldn’t $5.6 billion to a state that has a struggling economy” be a benefit?

Secretary Moniz did not disagree. He replied, “Again, we are advertising a consent-based approach.”

Let’s move forward here with a plan where all become winners!

The injection of $5.6 billion into Nevada’s economy over, say, a period of 10 years, would create a renaissance in our state.

Properly spent, it would lead to huge, much-needed improvements in education, health care, and transportation and put Nevadans in a good position to take full advantage of the good things the future offers.

Moreover, that money, along with Yucca Mountain’s development, could seed in a world-class capability in science, engineering, and technology for the future. Think of all the good jobs this would create.

Additionally, this effort would bring great benefits to the health of our planet by aiding in the development of climate-friendly nuclear energy.

And let it not be said that Nevada’s acceptance of such a sum for moving forward with Yucca Mountain is prostitution, as some Luddites will surely argue.

It is a fair payment for helping solve a big national problem for the benefit of all, both now and in the future.

Bob McCracken has a doctorate in cultural anthropology and is the author of numerous books in the Nye County Town History Project.