Wednesday, May 21, 2008 | 2 a.m.
The lawmaker perhaps most responsible for turning Yucca Mountain into the nation’s proposed nuclear waste dump said Tuesday the politically opposed project should never have been billed as a place to hold waste indefinitely.
Former Sen. J. Bennett Johnston says the waste repository might have won more public support in Nevada had it been designed as a temporary facility rather than the one now being planned to hold waste for up to 1 million years.
Instead, 20 years later, the plan to entomb highly radioactive nuclear waste 90 miles north of Las Vegas is hopelessly stalled in a protracted legal battle, as well as in the courtroom of public opinion.
“I think it should have been designed differently,” Johnston told a group of nuclear waste haulers Tuesday in Washington, D.C. “I knew we’d run into the kind of problems that we have — where you can’t absolutely prove with certainty what’s going to happen in 10,000 or 100,000 years.”
“The opportunity to bring lawsuits and spread uncertainty about what happens ... years from now is too great,” he added in an interview. “And that is exactly what has happened.”
Johnston’s comments come just weeks before the Energy Department is expected to deliver its long-awaited application to license the site. The Energy Department will try to convince federal regulators, and the public, that the site can safely hold nuclear waste for the unforeseeable future.
The former Louisiana senator’s renewed interest in a temporary holding facility mirrors increased efforts in the nuclear industry to seek alternatives to Yucca Mountain.
The Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry’s main trade group, has been quietly chatting with small, primarily rural communities to gauge their interest in hosting a temporary waste facility.
Neither Johnston, now a consultant in Washington, D.C., nor representatives from the nuclear industry will admit that Yucca Mountain is dead, as Nevada’s lawmakers often claim.
But they would like to have a backup plan for, say, the next few decades until Yucca Mountain opens.
The latest estimates from the Energy Department are that Yucca could start accepting waste by 2020. The department has spent $9 billion on the site, which was supposed to open in 1998.
Bob Loux, who leads the state’s efforts to fight Yucca Mountain, said the “mind-set of people like Johnston and the industry has all changed. They all realize now it was a huge mistake” to try to force the waste dump on Nevada.
Twenty years ago Johnston, a powerful Democratic committee chairman, led the drive for a permanent waste repository.
But Johnston also knew that trying to convince the public that the mountain could safely hold the waste for almost an eternity would be a tough sell.
Originally, the legislation included plans for what is called “monitored retrievable storage” — what some have called glorified loading docks, where waste could be monitored and retrieved if toxins began polluting the land or water, or if technological advances allowed for it to be recycled, as scientists are trying to do.
But lawmakers from the proposed temporary sites, especially Tennessee, protested, saying temporary would become permanent. No one wanted nuclear waste in his back yard.
Johnston now says that perhaps the time has come to reconsider temporary sites — even at Yucca Mountain.
“Perhaps we ought to go back to MRS,” he told the nuclear waste haulers, using the initials for monitored retrievable storage. “Yucca Mountain is a great place for MRS.”
However, it’s hard to believe Nevada, which has fought becoming a permanent waste site, would support being a temporary one.