Wednesday, April 27, 2011 | 8:56 a.m.
Nevada is usually chomping at the bit to have lawmakers come to spend time exploring the Las Vegas area. Not so much this week though, when a congressional delegation came to tour what they say is the “illegally closed” Yucca Mountain.
When Illinois Rep. John Shimkus led a group around the site, still officially slated to be the country’s nuclear waste repository, on Tuesday, the Nevada delegation’s message to them was clear: go away, and take your plans with you.
“We need to dump Yucca Mountain now and start securing fuel rods in hardened dry-cask storage containers kept at existing plant sites,” said Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley. “It is unfortunate that rather than allow representatives from the state of Nevada or Clark County to participate on his taxpayer-funded tour, Congressman Shimkus chose to slam the door in their faces. And he continues to ignore the voices of families and businesses in Nevada who oppose his efforts to turn our home into a nuclear garbage dump."
"The phrase 'Yucca Mountain is dead' apparently has not been repeated enough,” said Republican Rep. Dean Heller. “Given our nation's dire financial situation it makes little sense to keep spending taxpayer dollars on this ill-conceived project. Instead of traveling to Nevada to investigate a dead project, their time would be better spent looking at the abundance of renewable energy opportunities Nevada has to offer.”
About $13 billion has been poured into the Yucca project since it was selected as the nation’s pick for a nuclear dump site back in the 1980s. That barely comes close to the project total though (an estimated $90 billion), and for the last several years, Yucca has been off the financial table -- both because Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has sought to block any budget that contains a line item for Yucca, and because the president abandoned his plans.
But Republicans in the House picked up the cause of Yucca again earlier this year in their budget bill that’s come to be well-known by its bill number, H.R. 1. That legislation, in the exact opposite vein of what Heller suggests, sought to strip federal funding from the renewable energy loan guarantee programs that have gone to back some of Nevada’s largest-scale projects, such as the SolarReserve plant at Tonopah, while preserving it for Yucca.
Nevada’s delegation eventually went the way of most of the country: its Republican representatives all ultimately supported H.R. 1 in its entirety, and its Democratic representatives all voted against it -- but not before everyone involved tried to take a swipe at knocking Yucca funding off the bill. Heller’s effort to do so by amendment in the House wasn’t successful, as Reid eventually stripped the riders and dollars pertaining to Yucca in negotiations with House Speaker John Boehner.
But those agreements are only as good as the fiscal year they apply to, and with all eyes looking now toward fiscal 2012, Shimkus is pressing anew for Yucca’s use.
Until it’s either deemed unsuitable as a site by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission or its petition is somehow rescinded -- an act that the Department of Energy tried last year, only to be told such a move would be illegal -- the fight continues to play out between nuclear waste producers and the potential recipients, competing economic analyses, and opposing experts.
But that doesn’t mean it’s happening on an even keel. Expert inquiries and fact-finding missions in Congress are never a purely objective matter -- in any congressional hearing, for example, nine times out of 10 its the case that the majority of experts invited to testify on an issue are in agreement with the majority side’s point of view.
Tuesday’s fact-finding mission to Yucca had similar evidence of such swing: Shimkus’ delegation turned down an offer from state agencies to send technical experts to present Nevada’s point of view to the delegation.
Those experts likely would have pointed out some of the following concerns. Yucca is an active seismic zones, with dozens of earthquake fault lines crossing the site -- and while an average earthquake wouldn’t likely pack enough force to cause a disaster on the order of Japan’s Fukushima plant, many Nevadans are less willing to take a chance on even a fraction of that fallout with the memory fresh in mind.
There are also serious concerns about transportation of waste to and from the site. Those concerns have led Shimkus’ fellow Illinoisian Dick Durbin, a former booster of Yucca who serves as Reid’s whip in the Senate and also happens to hail from Shimkus’ district, to call for increased attention to on-site storage and reprocessing at nuclear plants.
The era when it will make economic sense to reprocess spent fuel is likely still several decades off, according to a team of MIT scientists who released a study about nuclear storage the same day as Shimkus’ delegation toured Yucca. But the idea of a repository, they argue, isn’t.
MIT’s Nuclear Fuel Cycle Study Advisory Committee, five members of whom sit on President Obama’s Blue Ribbon Commission on nuclear waste that’s exploring alternatives to Yucca, released a study Tuesday urging the adoption of a “centralized interim storage” facility -- one which would hold onto spent fuel for about 100 years, until such time as it would make sense to harvest it again for energy.
Where that would be -- since the panel isn’t recommending simply storing the product at the sites themselves -- isn’t clear. But the recommendation: to store waste in small dry casks that would take up less than 300 acres of space, in an area with low population density -- sounds a lot like Yucca.
The idea of an “interim” storage facility wasn’t on the table when Yucca was selected as the country’s nuclear destination site in 1987, and should the march of progress go along as predicted, that suggests that nuclear waste would be sitting in a centralized facility for a lot less time than the infinite timeline associated with a dumping ground.
But that doesn’t take care of the transportation concerns, nor the other hurdles to re-gearing Yucca to eventually become a reprocessing facility; an avenue some Nevadans, including Republican Rep. Joe Heck, have recommended pursuing as an engine of future job creation. Most crucially: all but a handful of the reprocessing plants in the world depend on a plentiful supply of water, a resource Nevada hasn’t got. While designs that rely on cooling metals instead are in the works, they are still decades off themselves; meaning any turn toward reopening Yucca, even on an interim-only, reprocessing basis, would be a deal made on far-off economic and scientific projections that may not come to fruition.
Given that harsh immediate reality, most Nevadan leaders are remaining adamant that the efforts now afoot to revive the Yucca site are pointless and spendthrift.
"As long as I am the majority leader of the United States Senate, this ill-conceived project will never see the light of day and we will never truck nuclear waste through Nevada's neighborhoods. It's time to move on and work together to find safer, more cost-effective solutions,” Reid said, deriding Shimkus’ visit as a “publicity stunt.”
Shimkus’ office did not immediately return a call Wednesday to divulge what Tuesday’s fact-finding mission to Yucca mountain revealed; we’ll update this blog later today when we’re able to connect with his staff.
But it’s highly unlikely he’ll be able to convince Nevada’s lawmakers he learned anything worthwhile.
"The only meaningful impact of this trip is the money these lawmakers are spending at Las Vegas hotels and restaurants," Reid said.