Miranda Alam / Special to the Sun
Monday, Sept. 9, 2019 | 2 a.m.
Annette Magnus will tell you her grandfather’s time spent working at the Nevada Test Site in Nye County ultimately led to his death from cancer.
Thousands of workers employed at the test site, about 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas, were exposed to radiation from nuclear weapons tests that the federal government conducted between 1951 and 1992. Some were eventually compensated by the government for the ensuing health problems from which they suffered. Many were not.
For Magnus, the executive director of the progressive nonprofit Battle Born Progress, the oft-forgotten, harmful effects of nuclear testing in Nevada serve as a warning of what could happen if Yucca Mountain, a proposed nuclear waste repository outside Las Vegas, came to fruition.
“My family has done their part for this nuclear history that we’ve had in the state of Nevada,” Magnus said.
She was one of several panelists to speak at a public forum Thursday about Yucca Mountain and its potential impacts on the area’s economy, ecology and public health if the site were built. The other panelists were longtime Yucca opponent Rep. Dina Titus, activist and Western Shoshone Nation spokesperson Mary Lou Anderson, Philip Klevorick of the Clark County Department of Comprehensive Planning’s Nuclear Waste Division, and Patrick Donnelly, Nevada state director for the Center for Biological Diversity.
Organized and moderated by the Nevada Conservation League, the discussion touched on the history and current state of the federal government’s plans to transport the country’s nuclear waste across the nation for permanent storage at Yucca Mountain, about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
By some measures, the federal government set the stage for the proposal in the 1950s, when it began testing atomic weapons in the Nevada desert and developed a strong military presence in Clark, Lincoln and Nye counties. Initially, and without knowing the full effects of radiation exposure, Nevadans and Las Vegans “welcomed” the testing, Titus said.
Things changed in 1982, when Congress passed a law to explore nine different sites across the country to permanently store its growing arsenal of nuclear waste. One possible site was Yucca Mountain. Under the law, the amount of waste to be stored at each site would be capped, Titus said.
That changed in 1988, with the passage of the so-called “screw Nevada” amendment, which identified Yucca Mountain as the sole permanent location for nuclear waste storage, Titus said.
“That’s when the real fighting against Yucca Mountain began,” she said.
In the following decades, discussions in Congress centered on funding for licensing at the site, until former president Barack Obama stalled licensing funding in 2011. But the federal government under President Donald Trump has attempted to restart funding to continue the licensing process — a precursor to actually building the repository.
The panelists presented many concerns surrounding Yucca Mountain, including the proposed routes for transporting the waste and the potentially devastating effects of an accident or spill. There is also a risk that nuclear waste could seep into the aquifer below Yucca Mountain, contaminating groundwater, Donnelly said.
That could have destructive impacts on wildlife that depend on that groundwater, including the approximately 25 species in the area protected under the Endangered Species Act. Plants and overall biodiversity would also be compromised, Donnelly said.
“This is a really rich biological area. Very unique in the world, really,” he said.
In addition to its ecological significance, the site of Yucca Mountain is located on land claimed by the Western Shoshone Nation based on the Treaty of Ruby Valley, signed by the nation and the federal government in 1863.
The federal government has already polluted Western Shoshone land through nuclear testing, mining and other activities throughout the state, Anderson said. The nation considers Yucca Mountain to be sacred and views the proposal to store nuclear waste there as yet another attack on their lands and breach of the treaty.
“This was (the Western Shoshone) hunting ground. It still is their hunting ground. Unfortunately, the animals, they’re dying off,” Anderson said.
At this point, stopping Yucca Mountain permanently would require an act of Congress, said Klevorick, program manager at Clark County’s nuclear waste division. Democratic Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez-Masto’s draft Nuclear Waste Informed Consent Act is one example of legislation that could stop the proposal by requiring consent from the governor, local governments and impacted tribes in order to appropriate any funding for a nuclear waste repository. Titus has introduced the same bill in the House since 2015.
Gov. Steve Sisolak, local tribes and most impacted local governments — with the exception of Nye County — staunchly oppose Yucca Mountain, so this act would effectively kill the proposal.
For now, the best path forward for those opposed to Yucca Mountain is to speak out and encourage political leaders and candidates to fight against the proposal.
“This is far from over,” Magnus said. “Don’t be complacent. That’s my biggest thing. You can never be complacent. They will always find a way to bring this here.”