Las Vegas Sun

November 20, 2019

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Nuclear industry to push stopgap waste sites

The lobby of the headquarters of the Nuclear Energy Institute in Washington features the organization’s name glowing in an artsy blue and white light projected on the floor.

Walking over the glow to the receptionist’s desk gives an Austin Powers vibe, a mix between what someone thought the future was supposed to look like and what really happened, which may be the predicament the industry finds itself in today.

The last nuclear plants were built 30 years ago, but as the nation hungers for new power sources — particularly those that do not increase the carbon footprint — nuclear energy emerges as an increasingly attractive option.

But what to do with the nuclear waste is still a problem.

Nevadans have fought for more than 20 years the government’s proposal to build the nation’s nuclear waste repository 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas. Odds are they are winning.

The dump was supposed to open 10 years ago, and now isn’t projected to open until after 2017. Patience is wearing thin. The industry wants new nuclear power plants and wants a solution for the waste.

Now, the Nuclear Energy Institute, the main trade group representing the industry, is trying a new approach. The institute is quietly talking to communities across the nation to see if they are interested in hosting a temporary waste storage site — perhaps not just a dump, but a nuclear industrial park that could support ancillary businesses and bring in jobs.

The institute envisions two, maybe four, sites in rural communities that might see something in it for them. These sites wouldn’t replace the need for a long-term repository at Yucca Mountain, the institute is quick to add, but would be caretakers of the waste for the next 100 years.

Since fall, the institute’s new point man on the project, Marshall Cohen, has visited a few communities and is trying to reach out to more. He has spoke publicly at about a half-dozen industry events. He gave a printout of his 12-slide PowerPoint presentation to the Sun.

The sign taped to Cohen’s office door reads: “Think outside the Beltway.” He must be reading that sign every day because what he’s about to say next doesn’t sound like the old nuclear industry Nevadans know so well.

“It is our belief that this only works if there are some communities who express interest and would be willing to consider and discuss and host this kind of facility,” Cohen says.

The bill Congress passed in 1987 that singled out Yucca Mountain as the sole site under consideration for the repository became known as the “Screw Nevada Bill.”

When President Bush signed legislation in 2002 that determined the Nevada site would become the dump, he did so over the objections of the state’s governor. Much of Nevada’s antagonism with the government over Yucca Mountain stems from how the deal went down: The small state couldn’t stop what was being forced on it.

Cohen wasn’t involved back then. His career was making its own arc, from working on Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign — he was with him in California the day before the candidate was shot — to becoming a media-turn-around expert.

“We’re in the very, very, very preliminary steps saying, ‘How should we do this? Where can we find communities that would be interested in having us come and talk to them?’ ” he said. “That’s what we’re doing.”

He uses words like “comfort level” as he describes his efforts to find what might make a town want to volunteer as a host site.

“It’s going to vary by community,” he said. “Again, that’s the key to it: community.”

His own belief: An interim site could be on line and accepting waste within a decade.

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