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October 27, 2021

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Analysis: Stirrings on Yucca Mountain bring out foes

Yucca Mountain

Isaac Brekken / AP

In this April 13, 2006, file photo, an underground train at the entrance of Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

Alarmed by what they feared was movement toward easing Nevada lawmakers’ long-standing opposition to the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, opponents of the project told a legislative panel today to keep fighting the project.

During a hearing before the Interim Legislative Committee on High-Level Radioactive Waste, critics expressed a broad range of concerns touching on the site’s potential effects on health, the environment, the economy, Southern Nevada culture and even on spiritual well-being.

“This state does not have a nuclear power plant; why should we be the repository for the rest of the nation’s mess?” said Rose Matta of Henderson. “We don’t need it in Nevada. We don’t want it.”

Opponents said the site posed a risk of air and groundwater contamination and would be a threat to Las Vegas residents, considering that transportation routes for the highly radioactive waste that would be stored at the site cut through the center of the valley.

Plans call for 77,000 metric tons of waste to be taken by truck or train to the site about 90 miles northeast of Las Vegas. Once at the repository, the waste would be stored in retrievable containers.

Funding for Yucca Mountain’s development was discontinued during the Obama administration, but a group of staunch supporters in Congress remained active in trying to revive it, and they received a boost when Donald Trump won the presidency.

In his proposed budget, Trump included $150 million to restart the licensing process for the repository. Congress did not follow through on Trump’s request, but the stirrings in Washington have prompted concerns among Yucca opponents that supporters of the project would try to soften Nevada’s position on it during the 2019 legislative session.

Today’s meeting, held simultaneously in Las Vegas and Carson City with a live video connection between the two sites, was of particular concern to opponents as it included a work session on whether to revisit a 2017 legislative resolution expressing opposition to Yucca Mountain.

However, the committee’s chairman, Assemblyman Edgar Flores, D-Las Vegas, opted not to hold the work session, saying, “I don’t see a need to pursue that now.”

More than 40 people turned out for the hearing in Las Vegas, with most falling into three general camps — opponents, supporters, and advocates of using the site to reprocess and reuse spent nuclear fuel rods.

Henderson resident Mary Rooney chastised lawmakers for not exploring the reprocessing option. She said the technology for repurposing rods has been developed since the repository was first proposed in the 1980s.

“Cars have come a long way since Henry Ford and airplanes have come a long way since Orville and Wilbur Wright, and yet our leadership doesn’t seem to want to recognize the huge advances in nuclear technology,” she said. “We’re given a choice of doing nothing, keeping the status quo, and using Yucca Mountain as a nuclear repository. It’s a false choice.”

Turning Yucca Mountain into a reprocessing plant would be a win-win situation for Nevada and the nation, she said.

“It would not only do away with current spent rods, but with advances in technology, we won’t be creating any new problems,” Rooney said.

The technology has been implemented in several European countries, as well as Russia, China and Japan, and is used to recover uranium and plutonium from spent rods. Critics say it is expensive and more dangerous than storing waste in secure areas.

Supporters urged lawmakers to allow the licensing process to resume, arguing that the site was based on sound science, would create jobs and would benefit the economy in and around Nye County, where Yucca Mountain is located.

“It would provide a lot of work for a lot of people for a long time,” said Forrest Darby, who wore a hat reading “Yucca Yes” as he spoke to lawmakers.

But a Clark County official and a representative for the Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce reiterated their opposition to the project, citing concerns that included its potential negative effect on the Southern Nevada economy in the event of an accident or sabotage of waste in transit.

Other opponents said the project would disproportionately jeopardize Western Shoshone and Paiute tribal members who live near the site, as well as low-income Las Vegas residents who live along rail and highway waste transportation routes.

Patrick Donnelly, a board member for the nonprofit environmental group Basin and Range Watch, described the area surrounding the site as a natural treasure, home to the nation’s only spring-fed river and a number of animal species found nowhere else on earth.

“Make no mistake — nuclear contamination discharging in the springs which make up this remarkable and biodiverse system would result in mass extinctions,” he said.

For Ernie Buschmann of Henderson, the issue was deeply personal. Buschmann told committee members he was compelled to speak by his memories of the late Corbin Harney, a Western Shoshone elder and spiritual leader who opposed nuclear testing and nuclear waste disposal on tribal lands.

Buschmann said he recalled Harney telling a federal panel that his ancestors were buried on Yucca Mountain and that the spirits of his ancestors returned in the form of animals.

“I have to tell you that if they tried to put a nuclear facility of any kind in the cemetery where my parents are buried, I’d be opposed to it,” Buschmann said. “Maybe I’m appealing to your emotions, but that’s an impression that will never leave me.”