Las Vegas Sun

August 25, 2019

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Guest column:

No need for discussion on Yucca Mountain

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Sam Morris

Atop Yucca Mountain, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, signs warn of possible radiation near a test well.

Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nev., says that he would be willing to discuss bringing high-level nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain to establish a reprocessing facility. Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., says that he too is open to exploring a reprocessing facility but not the importation of waste. How does that work? Recently Amodei said, “If I’m wrong, somebody can shout me down.”

Congressman, you are wrong. Do you really think that when reprocessing was completed at a facility at Yucca Mountain, disposal of the waste would occur somewhere else?

For nearly 30 years Nevada’s congressional delegation and residents have been solidly opposed to bringing high-level nuclear waste to our state. Polls have consistently shown an overwhelming majority of us are unwilling to accept a national nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain.

A national group that keeps track of environmental issues lists more than a thousand groups, representing every state in the U.S., that have expressed opposition to Yucca Mountain. When the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects released a report and maps showing likely rail and highway transport routes for waste coming to Yucca Mountain from the commercial nuclear power plants in the U.S., a press conference was held here to explain the report. Nationwide, 125 organizations also held press events in cities across the country on the same day showing how waste would travel through their cities and rural areas. Many places where barge transport was planned were also very upset about the waste threatening those waterways.

As the studies continued for years at Yucca Mountain it became clear that the site was not as safe as had been predicted by the Department of Energy (DOE). Early on the effort shifted from one of objective investigation to see if the site had the attributes needed to geologically isolate the waste to one of compensation for discovered deficiencies. When site characterization began, the belief was that the container for the waste was merely a vessel that made handling of the fuel rods as easy as possible. When it was acknowledged that water traveled through the mountain and would contact the waste packages, more engineering fixes were dreamed up and modified repeatedly in an attempt to show compliance with radiation release standards. Ultimately it was necessary to have an 11-mile buffer zone in the direction that the groundwater moved so enough dilution could be assumed to occur to meet the radiation safety standard. Try selling that idea to any other community selected for a dump.

With the commercial nuclear industry nipping at their heels demanding results, the DOE declared the site “suitable” in 2002 and the activity moved from studying Yucca Mountain to an attempt to get it licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). A license application was submitted in 2008, but the Nevada and others submitted nearly 300 contentions (arguments challenging the license application) which would need to be adjudicated. That number is unprecedented and the time to resolve that many issues would have been extensive.

Nevada’s well-known opposition continued and finally in 2010, with Nevada Sen. Harry Reid holding the top position in the U.S. Senate, and the election of President Barack Obama, the Yucca Mountain project was stopped and a blue ribbon commission was named to consider alternative policy approaches for managing or disposing of the nation’s nuclear waste. They will not consider any specific sites for waste storage or disposal, and Yucca Mountain is not on the table.

Over the years there have been individuals or small groups in Nevada who supported the building of a repository at Yucca Mountain or advocated the development of nuclear power here. They were not effective in gaining public support or establishing a foothold in the State Legislature or Congressional delegation offices. The defeat of a Yucca Mountain dump has been the clear priority of all attorneys general, governors and congressional delegation members, regardless of party. It has been recognized that any movement away from this publicly endorsed position, such as the consideration of pipe dream “benefits” or agreement to any part of the national nuclear waste program would very likely be seen as implied consent to a Yucca Mountain dump — until now.

Amodei and Heck, reprocessing requires a lot of water. The spent nuclear fuel is dissolved in an acid solution. So any water allocated for a facility at Yucca Mountain would decrease the amount flowing to the farms and dairy in Amargosa Valley, and the separation process would turn the fresh water into highly radioactive acid. Plutonium and uranium are then extracted and what is left over is a very difficult to contain, liquid high-level radioactive waste that must be solidified for disposal. Reprocessing does not eliminate the need for a repository/disposal.

As reported by the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research: “Reprocessing is probably the dirtiest operation in the nuclear fuel cycle. In South Carolina alone, reprocessing is responsible for creating the most radioactive waste in the country — over 30 million gallons of high-level liquid waste containing chemicals used in the separation process combined with a long list of radioactive elements created inside the reactors.” Again, Nevadans concerned with contamination of groundwater would have far more reason to fear.

In its draft report, the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future stated it saw no advantage to reprocessing anytime soon. A recently released Government Accountability Office report states that technologies for nuclear fuel recycling are not feasible. And Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., states: “These technologies are unwanted by industry, expensive and prone to proliferation risks.” Additionally a report from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said it could not advocate reprocessing in the U.S. at this time. Considering all of these opinions, from a wide range of experts, why Nevada have any interest in a facility for this expensive and dirty operation?

The most costly and difficult cleanup operations now being undertaken in our country are those at Hanford in Washington, the Savannah River Plant in South Carolina and the former reprocessing plant at West Valley, NY. Each of those facilities reprocessed spent nuclear fuel and produced the liquid high-level nuclear waste that soon became, and remains a threat to nearby ground and surface water. According to IEER, “It will cost U.S. taxpayers tens of billions of dollars to contain the waste from past reprocessing. There are no plans to ever completely clean it up. No one yet knows how to do so safely, even if there was money to try.” Why would we ever consider adding Nevada to that list?

The people and elected officials of Nevada have worked long and hard to defeat the government’s efforts to force a nuclear waste repository on us at Yucca Mountain. It has been a David-and-Goliath battle but we are now very close to a win. The DOE has told the NRC that they want to withdraw their license application with prejudice — meaning that it would never be reconsidered in the future. Both the DOE and NRC have closed out activities as funding ceased. The entrance tunnel at Yucca Mountain is fenced off and all operations have stopped. The money to carry on has not been appropriated by Congress thanks to the efforts of our senators, and finally the commercial nuclear industry is becoming less enthused about a Nevada repository.

Nevada now is working to end our dreadful recession. We are seeing ways to attract new industries with good jobs that do not sacrifice our environment. New innovation and developing business opportunities surely do not need to come with radiation danger. Yucca Mountain never promised many jobs beyond the large number of miners who would have been hired for tunnel boring and then moved on, in the typical boom-and-bust cycle. Ironically, right now the tunnel at Yucca Mountain is ruled by a large barn owl — the messenger of death, according to Western Shoshone spiritual teachings. I say we let Mother Nature have the last word.

Judy Treichel is the executive director of the Nevada Nuclear Waste Task Force.

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