Las Vegas Sun

November 25, 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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