The United States has more than 100 commercial nuclear power plants that produce about 20 percent of our electricity.
Waste from these plants is accumulating at the rate of about 2,000 tons per year and is stored at temporary sites in about two-thirds of the states. The federal government began studies on how to permanently dispose of this waste in the 1960s and, in 1982, Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which provided for development of a repository for the permanent storage of the nation’s high-level nuclear waste.
Yucca Mountain, adjoining the Nevada Test Site in Nye County, was a strong candidate from the beginning in the search for a suitable site, and in 1987 Congress singled it out as the only site for further intense study. From the program’s beginning, some of Nevada’s leaders have strongly opposed the possibility of a Yucca Mountain repository. Largely because of this opposition, the effort to solve the nation’s high-level nuclear waste storage problem is now years behind schedule and currently in hiatus.
Lack of Progress
Many, both in Washington and elsewhere, are most unhappy with the lack of progress on this matter. For example, a Feb. 8 editorial in the Washington Post on Yucca Mountain stated, “Nevadans’ intense opposition to the Yucca project is unreasonable, unambiguously harmful to the country and should end.”
In clear and precise terms the editors indicated it’s time to get the big nuclear waste storage project back on track.
Nevada’s U.S. Sens. Harry Reid and Dean Heller and Governor Brian Sandoval responded to the Post’s editorial in a letter to the editor on Feb. 13. They said the editorial “grossly trivialized Nevada’s technical concerns—implying the safety debate is over.” They further wrote,
“Nevada’s resistance to the Yucca Mountain repository is based on legitimate concerns for the safety of our citizens and the environment… . Nevadans will not be swayed by a D.C. newspaper’s editorial board. Yucca Mountain is … an unsafe option.”
These Nevada leaders make a good point in directing attention to the issue of safety.
Proponents of Yucca Mountain agree that safety is the most important issue when it comes to dealing with nuclear waste. Indeed, the federal government has spent more than $15 billion studying the suitability of Yucca Mountain, most of that on the broad issue of safety. Some of the best scientists in the world have worked long and hard on the safety of Yucca Mountain and have concluded that high-level nuclear waste can safely be stored there for one million years.
And the staff of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the federal government’s watchdog agency on nuclear issues, agrees.
Thus the question is, if Sen. Reid and company’s objections to Yucca Mountain are indeed based on “legitimate concerns for the safety of our citizens and the environment,” as they say in their letter to the Post, what is it that the scientists who worked on Yucca Mountain, not to mention the commission, missed? What did they fail to consider? Was there a flaw in the methods and models they used, or their mathematics? Was there something wrong with their use of physics, chemistry, geology, engineering and management concepts, sociology, and history? Tell us, so the scientists and engineers who worked on Yucca Mountain, the NRC, and the public can understand why a Yucca Mountain repository is unsafe. Tell us why it will be necessary for the country to spend additional billions of dollars in search of a different site for a repository that will be safe.
I ask Sens. Reid and Heller and Gov. Sandoval this: If you are convinced that a repository for permanent storage of high-level nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain will be unsafe, what is your evidence? Justify your concerns in scientific terms. Leave out the politics and your feelings and beliefs; give us the science, please. The safety of nuclear waste is too important to be left to personal opinion and belief unsupported by science.
This said, it is important to bear in mind that Sens. Reid and Heller and Gov. Sandoval are only three of many voices in Nevada. Numerous other elected officials from throughout the state support Yucca Mountain and the scientific efforts that have been made to assure its safety.
Commissioners in nine Nevada counties, representing 75 percent of the state’s geographical area, are on record as supporting completion of the Yucca Mountain licensing hearings. Moreover, those who live closest to Yucca Mountain in Nye, Esmeralda, and Lincoln counties, and who have had considerable experience with nuclear energy matters vis-à-vis the Nevada Test Site, favor Yucca Mountain by large majorities.
To get the program back on track, I suggest Yucca Mountain opponents in Nevada be given the full opportunity to justify their concerns about Yucca Mountain’s safety. I propose that the federal government give the state of Nevada several hundred million dollars for each of the next two to three years, to use in any manner the state desires while it presents its evidence in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission hearing process that the Yucca Mountain repository will be unsafe. In 2008, the state raised 229 concerns about Yucca Mountain; it can take those concerns and make as strong a case as possible for its point of view. The state could likely negotiate a delay in the resumption of the hearings if it needed more time to develop its arguments.
The next and final round of hearings on Yucca Mountain is prescribed by the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, and will determine whether or not the nation should move forward with construction of the repository there. At the hearings, the state of Nevada can present its findings on Yucca Mountain’s safety problems. Advocates for moving forward on the repository will also present their case.
As prescribed by law, the presentations will be adjudicated by a panel of independent, highly qualified professional judges. If the evidence Nevada presents convinces the judges that a Yucca Mountain repository would indeed be unsafe, the project is dead, and the money stops.
If, on the other hand, Yucca Mountain is judged to be safe, the repository moves forward and, as development proceeds, the state will continue to receive cash payments each year, as long as the construction moves forward until completion.
This method will enable the issue of Yucca Mountain and its safety to be resolved as rationally as humanly possible in terms of science, and not by means of political expediency and unscientific opinions and beliefs.
The Science Veto
In other nations that use nuclear power and are building repositories to store their waste, the decision to accept or reject a repository rests at the local community level. Under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (1983), a state veto is not permitted in the United States. Nevertheless, for more than two decades the state of Nevada has been trying to enact its own veto over Yucca Mountain, largely through the actions of a few politicians, much to the frustration of many, including those living closest to the site.
With the plan I propose here, it is science that will have the veto, which is appropriate in a large, complex, high tech, science-driven society.
Bob McCracken has a doctorate in cultural anthropology and is the author of numerous books in the Nye County Town History Project, and the ongoing brothel history series in the Times.