Las Vegas Sun

October 23, 2019

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Yucca Mountain foes hail historic step to kill nuclear waste depository


Steve Marcus / FILE

The Obama administration promised Monday it would withdraw the application to open a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain.

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Yucca Mountain

The U.S. Energy Department plans to store spent nuclear fuel at Yucca Mountain, an extinct volcano about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas. Launch slideshow »

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The moment that Nevadans had awaited for decades arrived in a flash.

There, popping up on computer screens in offices in Washington and Carson City, was the news that a slim, 15-page legal document had been filed, taking the biggest step yet — one in a series of giant leaps this year — in dashing long-running government plans for a nuclear waste dump in the desert 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

“The United States Department of Energy hereby moves ... to withdraw its pending license application for a permanent geologic repository at Yucca Mountain, Nev.,” reads the opening line.

And then this: “with prejudice.” Those key words would make it extremely difficult for Yucca Mountain to ever be considered again for a nuclear waste repository.

“Aside from my wife, this is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” Bruce Breslow, executive director of the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects, which is fighting the dump, said in an e-mail flash moments after the filing was made public.

President Barack Obama is making good on the promise he made two years ago to Nevadans to end the Yucca repository plan. The nuclear waste dump project has been starved of funding ever since Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid rose to power. But Obama, at Reid’s urging, could direct the Energy Department to halt the process and look at ways to deal with spent but still lethally radioactive fuel rods.

The Obama administration also announced Wednesday the first meeting of the commission to investigate alternatives to a Yucca repository. The commission, headed by Washington veterans Lee Hamilton and Brent Scrowcroft, will begin its 18-month task this month.

The move is a sizable win for Reid, who has led the Nevada delegation in fighting the dump, as he heads into a difficult re-election campaign this fall.

For most officials in Washington and Carson City, news that the legal filing would be coming Wednesday was no secret.

The Obama administration promised as much when it announced Feb. 1 that its fiscal 2011 budget would zero out funding. At that time, the Energy Department said it would pull the license within 30 days. Most elected officials had been briefed on the status.

But as Wednesday morning became Wednesday afternoon, Breslow, at his office in Carson City, became glued to the computer. The clock ticked toward 5 p.m. EST, and as he watched the minutes count down, he wondered when the unbelievable would happen.

Finally, shortly after close of business, the news broke.

Breslow dashed off copies of the document to the governor’s office and his advisory board headed by former Sen. Richard Bryan, a longtime opponent of the dump.

He jumped on a conference call with lawyers to parse every word and plot strategy for the state’s response.

“We’re so busy working on making sure that we succeed on the legal challenges we haven’t even had time to stop and say congratulations to anybody,” Breslow said. “There’s no Champagne here.”

In Washington, Reid, who had been briefed on the pending news, was busy running the Senate. When the announcement came, he was meeting in his office with Nevada Republican Sen. John Ensign on other matters. The two sent out a joint release.

The move “marks the final stage of a battle that I’ve fought since arriving in Congress,” Reid said.

Ensign commended Obama administration officials “for holding up their end of the bargain.”

Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley was deep in conversation with a constituent who had stopped by her office on an unrelated topic when the word came down.

Berkley, who has promised to lie down on railroad tracks to stop nuclear waste from being shipped to Nevada, said “Obama was 100 percent right to dump Yucca Mountain.

“President Obama pledged to Nevadans that he would end efforts to turn our state into a radioactive garbage dump, and now his blue-ribbon commission will begin its work to find an alternative,” she said.

Yet as is so often the case with Yucca Mountain, even this latest, landmark development does not spell the end of the long-sought project.

Several states and municipalities are suing the federal government, seeking to press on with the dump’s development. Some are asking the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s licensing board to allow them to intervene as parties to the deliberations.

Officials in South Carolina, Washington state and Georgia are seeking to reverse Obama’s decision, saying they want the nuclear waste that is being stored in their states to be shipped to Yucca Mountain as planned.

Plus, the powerful nuclear industry has not signaled its next move.

Democratic Rep. Dina Titus pledged to remain vigilant in fighting the dump. “While those who have their own interests in mind, not those of Nevada, will undoubtedly seek to slow down this process, we are well on our way to killing Yucca Mountain,” she said.

The commission’s licensing board will entertain these motions as it decides whether to grant the Energy Department’s request to withdraw the license. Hearings could be convened.

The parties can appeal the board’s decision to the full commission, which is headed by Gregory Jaczko, a former Reid staffer. The commission’s decisions can be further appealed in federal court.

Breslow said the Champagne is in the ice bucket, moving closer to the counter for uncorking. “When it’s finally done, I’ll let out something you can hear all the way there,” he said. “But not yet.”

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