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January 26, 2022

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Tonopah quake bolsters Nevada’s case against Yucca dumpsite

Yucca Mountain

John Locher/Associated Press file

Participants in a 2015 congressional tour of Yucca Mountain enter the project’s south portal. The site is near the Nevada town of Mercury, about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

A 6.5 magnitude earthquake in Tonopah last week has given state officials opposed to the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste project further evidence that Nevada’s seismic activity makes the state a bad choice for the storage facility.

Belinda Evenden, who has led a seismic hazard study on Yucca Mountain for the state since two Ridgecrest, Calif., earthquakes last July were felt in Southern Nevada, said there is a commonality between the temblors.

Evenden, the technical division administrator at the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects, said all three earthquakes and Yucca Mountain are located within the same Walker Lane fault line. The 625-mile area, which roughly aligns with the Nevada-California border, accounts for 15-30% of the motion between the North American and Pacific geological crustal plates, she said. Researchers at UNR say it’s “riddled with hundreds of earthquake faults.”

Yucca Mountain was designated as the nation’s only permanent nuclear waste repository in 1987, but there has been sustained pushback from Nevadans over the last three decades because of the dangers, such as seismic activity. There is currently no waste stored in Yucca Mountain, which, as it sits, is merely a 5-mile hole in the ground.

After the Ridgecrest earthquakes — one a 6.4 magnitude; the other a 7.1 magnitude — Gov. Steve Sisolak and the Nevada congressional delegation wrote a letter to then-Energy Secretary Rick Perry demanding that further seismological studies be conducted before Yucca Mountain be used as a repository.

“This increased seismic activity could affect in unknown ways the risk of a dangerous earthquake or volcanic event at a Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository,” the letter read. “Seismic hazards will affect repository safety during a century or more of waste transportation and emplacement operations, and threaten long-term safety performance after closure, when the repository must isolate these dangerous wastes from the environment for 1 million years.”

Bob Halstead, the executive director of the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects, has previously said earthquakes could possibly fracture rock, allow water to infiltrate storage sites or nuclear waste to possibly enter the region’s groundwater. In an email this week, Halstead wrote that the Tonopah earthquake “unequivocally validates” the state’s concerns about Yucca Mountain.

President Donald Trump, after previously proposing budget funding to restart the repository, did not request funding for the site in the budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1, a sign that has led some to hope the project is irrevocably dead.

The administration is “initiating processes to develop alternative solutions and engaging states in developing an actionable path forward,” according to budget documents.