Las Vegas Sun

February 15, 2019

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GUEST COLUMN:

First step to a solution on nuclear waste: End Yucca Mountain

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Isaac Brekken / AP

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

There is an interesting phenomenon at the Department of Energy when it comes to the disposal of high-level nuclear waste.

When a new concept for getting rid of waste is proposed, the reaction from the department is: “Our policy is Yucca Mountain. That’s the law.” But when someone suggests abandoning Yucca Mountain, the reaction is: “We can’t do that without a viable alternative.”

This is a circular dilemma, going nowhere.

In 2010, then-Secretary of Energy Steven Chu announced that the DOE would withdraw the license application that had been submitted to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, seeking construction authorization for a high-level nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain. Officials and residents in Nevada were delighted — a wake was held to commemorate the death of the project, in fact.

However, the celebration was premature because Chu’s decision was challenged in court, where it was decided that the project must continue as long as there was funding.

But after years of successfully fighting to block funding for the project, it’s time for a new strategy. It’s time to permanently shut down the project.

Bringing Yucca Mountain to an end after more than 30 years of battle and expense to national taxpayers, rate payers and the people of Nevada is the right thing to do. The site cannot isolate or contain deadly poisonous waste for the thousands of years. A restart of the program would eventually cost more than other options and result in failure.

The waste is still a problem, but the good news is that although there are increasing amounts of it needing management and disposal, the pile is growing more slowly because old commercial nuclear power plants are being shut down.

Any country using nuclear power, however, recognizes that it must enact a workable plan for the permanent disposal of its waste. The U.S. is no different.

Many nuclear nations have faced problems very similar to the dilemma we’re facing in our nation, but the countries that appear to have programs moving toward their goals have discovered that the only possibility for success is if they engage the public first.

If we were to permanently pull the plug on Yucca Mountain, we wouldn’t be alone in stopping a mistake like this. That’s exactly what happened in the United Kingdom.

The first attempt at high-level nuclear waste disposal there went down because the government attempted to force a dump into an area that didn’t want it. The next program sought the consent of the public, but fizzled amid inadequate follow-through. Now, the decision has been made to make a clean break – stop and make a new start.

We should follow that example.

We all agree that there needs to be permanent disposal for dangerous, highly radioactive waste.That can only happen if all disposal options are considered, and the public is consulted and in agreement with any new program.

There must be trust and confidence in the agency or entity that is given the job of running a program. Both a government blue ribbon commission and an academic group have issued reports on the matter recently, and each said that any facility siting must be consensual with fully adequate public involvement. Both agreed that the implementer of a new program must be an entity other than the Department of Energy.

For more than 60 years, through atomic weapons testing and nuclear waste battles, Nevada has been treated unfairly and dishonestly by government agencies. We have spent our time and money fighting to stop the damage being done by weapons tests and preventing a nuclear waste dump that we know will not be safe.

Yucca Mountain should be declared unsuitable because it cannot safely isolate the waste.

It is time for the battle to end, so a new beginning can be possible.

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