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July 5, 2015

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Sun Editorial:

Politics, the law and Yucca Mountain

Supporters of ill-conceived nuclear waste dump miss the point


U.S. Department of Energy

Yucca Mountain is located about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

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A federal appeals court last week heard the request of South Carolina and Washington, which want a court order to require the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to take action to move the dump forward.

The states, along with the nuclear industry and its supporters, are desperately trying to breathe life back into the Yucca Mountain project. It has struggled for years as Congress has left it poorly funded, and after taking office, President Barack Obama struck what may be the fatal blow, telling the Energy Department to shut down work on it and find a better way to handle the nation’s nuclear waste. The NRC has, as a result, started wrapping up its work on the project.

Yucca Mountain’s supporters are arguing that the federal government is violating the law by not working on it. After all, they rationalize, Congress approved the project and thus the project should be supported.

However, it isn’t exactly rare that Congress passes a law and then fails to support it or lets it flounder because of disagreements on Capitol Hill. As Karoun Demirjian reported in the Sun, Judge Merrick Garland wondered about the number of unfunded and underfunded mandates in Congress. “How do we draw a line that doesn’t put us in the business of ordering the agencies to do things Congress hasn’t given them the money to do?” he asked.


If the states are correct, should the court then jump into the political fight over the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau? That agency was created by Congress with the approval of the president, but Republicans have worked diligently to stifle the agency. Should the judges intervene and mandate Congress’ full support?

What about OSHA or the Environmental Protection Agency or other regulatory agencies that have been badly underfunded over the years and found the work they’re obligated to perform regularly undercut by Congress?

The fact is that Congress sets priorities in the budgets it passes, and for years, it hasn’t made Yucca Mountain a priority.

But, the nuclear power industry and its supporters say that’s just politics, blaming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. Before the court hearing, Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., made this claim: “Yucca Mountain is closed for only one reason: politics.”

The nuclear power industry likes to trot out studies that it claims show that the project is based on sound science, but the creation and continued support of Yucca Mountain is really based in political science. In the 1980s, politicians shelved a full scientific study to find the best site and chose Yucca Mountain over potential sites in Texas and Washington. At the time, Nevada didn’t have any clout in Congress. The fact that the key congressional leaders were from Washington and Texas was merely coincidental, right?

As the federal government got behind the project, the political juice in favor of Yucca Mountain kept flowing, and Congress had no problem bending or changing the rules to help the project along when science couldn’t make it work.

Yet now when the case has been made against Yucca Mountain and the political equation has shifted, the nuclear power industry and its supporters want to cry foul.

Last year, Duncan, whose district has nuclear waste he wants gone, went to the floor of the House of Representatives to blast his own party’s presidential candidates for not supporting Yucca Mountain. He even invoked the Constitution’s Tenth Amendment in the process, saying he wanted to “talk about the states’ rights aspect of this.”

“Where is South Carolina’s right to be rid of this waste?” he asked.

Yes, where is South Carolina’s right to gang up with the federal government and dump waste in Nevada? For that matter, where are Nevada’s rights in this?

We’re sure a politician in South Carolina or Washington can answer that.

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  1. "Before the court hearing, Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., made this claim: 'Yucca Mountain is closed for only one reason: politics.'"

    No, Sir. Let me correct your misunderstanding.

    Yucca Mountain Project (YMP) is closed because we don't want your nuclear trash.

    You, sir, CANNOT and WILL NOT tell us what to do. Especially when it is only you that benefits from YMP. And not us.

    Bury that crap in your backyard, Mr. Duncan, and charge people to look at it.

    The chances of that happening are far greater than you shipping the most dangerous substance known to manking to Southern Nevada in Hefty trash bags.

    YMP is dead. And it will stay dead. There are plenty of us that live here who will fight tooth and nail to uphold our safety here. It may look like desert to you, but this is our home. And eventually our children's children's children. We keep it safe for them, not because South Carolina (or any other State) wants to get rid of their nuclear garbage.

    Nice try, Mr. Duncan. Not gonna work. YMP is dead and will stay dead.

  2. "'Where is South Carolina's right to be rid of this waste?' he asked."

    Good question, Mr. Duncan.

    Unfortunately, you are directing this question to Nevada. And we are the wrong people to answer that question.

    We are out of the equation.

    You CANNOT and WILL NOT shove your nuclear crap off on us, Sir.

    I suggest that the esteemed Rep. Duncan pursue this line of questioning without trying to hammer it off on Nevada all the time.

    We do not do what South Carolina tells us to do.

    They don't control our Sovereign State.

    WE DO.

    Good luck in finding out the answer to your question.

    Just leave Nevada out of it when you ask again.

    Yucca is dead and will stay dead. No means no and it STILL means no.

  3. NIMBY and State's Rights, a great combination to stop progress on anything unpopular, however necessary. Where were Washington, Idaho and South Carolina's (and many more) states' rights when the national defense program came and dumped a lot of activity and consequent waste on them? They, just like Nevada with its test site, stood ready, willing and able to share in creating a strong defensive posture for this country.

    Now it is no longer necessary to keep building up that defensive posture, so we have the privilege of cleaning up what was messed up in order to 'win' the Cold War. Washington, Idaho and South Carolina's defense complexes were very large, and near, and on top of, major aquifers with many users. None of them flow into Death Valley. Nevada was selected to help clean up this waste as well as the civilian nuclear waste the government, by law, agreed to take care of, at rate-payer, not taxpayer, expense.

    It is very understandable that these three states in particular want their defense wastes to be cleaned up and taken away. In fact it is their right to get their lands back in as good a condition as is reasonable to expect.

    The Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff basically said a Yucca repository could be a safe repository if built and run as the license application stated it would be. Good. But there is more to making a societal decision of this magnitiude than safety.

    There is also cost. Society ought not to spend more than it needs to today to protect the future. The same day this opinion piece came out, the Tri-City Herald in Washington State published a piece by two of its local residents, Judith Wright and Jim Conca, that suggests that going to a medium other than tuff, the Yucca rock, would be very much cheaper. Read it here:

    Are they right in their cost estimates? I don't know, but that is not exactly the point. The point is that cost as well as local acceptance ought to rule this decision. As the Blue Ribbon Commission said, these types of decisions ought not to be dictated by Congress, they ought to be negotiated with localities (Nye is all for it!) and State governments (oops, Nevada does not want to play), and tribal governments if they are affected (another oops, the Western Shoshone are outspoken foes).

    So is there hope for a Nevada repository? Three states have now expressed interest in hosting a repository, acording to the news. This ship is leaving the Port of Las Vegas. But the opportunity may be back, one repository is not going to do it for this country's growing future needs. Maybe with repositories in one or more places operating safely, a new Nevada administration may also welcome one. May even decide to compete for one.

    I won't live to see that day, of course, but some readers might.