Las Vegas Sun

December 1, 2015

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Winning the Yucca battle - 25 years later

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Twenty-five years ago, on Dec. 22, 1987, Nevada’s number was up — at least we thought so. The most bombed place on Earth was slated by Congress to take another big hit in the form of becoming the final resting place for the nation’s thousands of tons of high-level nuclear waste. The Screw Nevada Bill became law, directing the Department of Energy to only consider Yucca Mountain for a national repository.

In addition to being on the western edge of the Nevada Test Site (now the Nevada National Security Site), Yucca Mountain is also beneath the Nellis Air Force Base’s test and training range. Military aircraft are tested and war exercises are carried out, often with live bombs. During a public meeting, conducted by the Department of Energy, a Las Vegas schoolteacher told the agency, “You have decided that the one place in the country where bombs are tested underground and bombs are sometimes dropped from above is the safest place to bring the most dangerous waste there is?”

After nearly 1,000 nuclear weapons were detonated over a 40-year period at the Test Site and other locations in Nevada, full-scale nuclear weapons testing was ended in 1992. But as we were to learn later, decision-makers in Congress had believed that since Nevadans had experienced and supposedly accepted weapons testing, they surely would not object to the importation of radioactive waste from weapons manufacture and all of the irradiated fuel from the nation’s nuclear power plants. They were very wrong. The first misconception was that a little radiation would be added to a lot. Not true. The radiation that would be brought to Yucca Mountain was 40 times more than the residual radiation left at the Test Site from bomb testing.

During the first session of the Legislature after the passage of the Screw Nevada Bill, a law was passed making it illegal to store or dispose of high-level nuclear waste in the state. Gov. Bob Miller sealed the state’s policy opposing a Yucca Mountain repository when he signed AB222 on July 6, 1989. Grass-roots groups formed to provide residents with opportunities to voice their opinions and show strength in numbers. Citizen Alert was the first, followed shortly by the Nevada Nuclear Waste Task Force, which is continuing the fight until the project is declared dead.

Nevadans were often characterized as being simply “NIMBYs.” — not in my backyard. It’s true that residents and elected leaders did not want the state known as the home of the nation’s nuclear waste dump, but the state’s own experts found serious problems with the site’s ability to contain the waste and protect our valuable groundwater. So, in addition to threats to tourism and our economy, it was clear that the project was also a health and safety threat that was being forced on us.

There’s no doubt that any state is at a terrible disadvantage in a battle with the federal government. Nevada was undersized in both population and clout in Washington. In addition, one of the nation’s most powerful industries was pushing Yucca Mountain — the commercial nuclear industry. One of its representatives left a lasting impression when he said at a meeting: “I don’t care where you take this stuff. Just get it away from our reactors.”

The Department of Energy was reluctant to talk about how the waste would get here, so Nevada transportation expert Bob Halstead, now director of the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects, created map packages showing the routes that waste would travel through 43 states by rail and highway if it were to be shipped to Yucca Mountain. Copies of those map packages were requested by groups representing many regions of the country. In January 1995, simultaneous press conferences were held in over 100 cities in the U.S. providing the map of each state and showing the number of trucks and trains that would be bringing tons of waste through. The theme of this effort highlighted the fact that when it comes to transportation of high-level nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain, everyone is a Nevadan. Since that time, more than 1,000 groups have signed up as opponents of the project.

After all of this time, the project is not formally dead but certainly close to it. Sen. Harry Reid and Richard Bryan, a former governor and senator, have been at the forefront of the battle since the beginning. The Obama administration has declared the project unworkable, stopping all work in 2010, and a presidential commission has released recommendations calling for any nuclear waste repository or centralized storage site to have a voluntary host state and community. It’s taken a quarter of a century, and in that time, Nevada has shown that you can indeed beat the odds.

Judy Treichel is executive director of the Nevada Nuclear Waste Task Force.

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