Put Yucca Moun­tain to work

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion and GOP lead­ers are try­ing to jump-start work on a cru­cial nu­clear waste storage site.

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION -

EN­ERGY SEC­RE­TARY Rick Perry trav­eled to Capi­tol Hill last month, ask­ing Congress for $28 bil­lion in fund­ing for ev­ery­thing from nu­clear weapons to clean-coal re­search. Yet one of the most con­tro­ver­sial el­e­ments in his depart­ment’s bud­get pro­posal was a re­quest for a rel­a­tively tiny $120 mil­lion — to restart work on Ne­vada’s Yucca Moun­tain nu­clear waste storage site.

Congress de­cided in the 1980s that Yucca was to be the per­ma­nent home of the coun­try’s large and in­creas­ing pile of spent nu­clear fuel. In a for­bid­ding desert land­scape about 100 miles out­side Las Vegas, the site would ap­pear to be an ideal choice for an un­breach­able un­der­ground vault. The fed­eral gov­ern­ment spent more than $15 bil­lion study­ing the place. Just a cou­ple of years ago, the Nu­clear Reg­u­la­tory Com­mis­sion found that the fa­cil­ity would be tech­ni­cally sound, con­sid­er­ing ev­ery­thing from seis­mic ac­tiv­ity to ac­ci­den­tal hu­man in­tru­sion, on time scales of up to a mil­lion years. Lo­cals in Nye County, which would stand to ben­e­fit from em­ploy­ment re­lated to the site, are on board.

But prac­ti­cally ev­ery­one else in Ne­vada op­poses the Yucca project, and state lead­ers have waged a so-far suc­cess­ful not-in-my-back-yard cam­paign, even though fed­eral law is clear that the site is to be the na­tion’s nu­clear waste store­house. The state has de­nied the En­ergy Depart­ment the wa­ter rights it would need to build the de­pos­i­tory. For years, then-Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) suc­cess­fully blocked fund­ing for its de­vel­op­ment, with the help of Pres­i­dent Barack Obama, who made an ex­cep­tion for swing-state Ne­vada from his pledge to run a sci­ence-based ad­min­is­tra­tion.

With Mr. Reid and Mr. Obama both re­tired, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion and GOP lead­ers are try­ing to re­vive the project. Work is fur­thest along in the House, where a bill jump-start­ing Yucca’s ap­proval is ad­vanc­ing quickly. Yet it faces a tough road: Ne­vada’s con­gres­sional del­e­ga­tion will fight it tooth-and-nail.

It’s past time the op­po­si­tion was side­lined for good. The na­tion’s nu­clear reg­u­la­tors have found that tech­ni­cal hur­dles can be over­come; the big­gest bar­ri­ers to de­vel­op­ing the site are po­lit­i­cal. Congress should re-fund Yucca Moun­tain and fi­nally end this gra­tu­itous fight.

But that is hardly all law­mak­ers need to do. No mat­ter what hap­pens with Yucca, the coun­try should move its stocks of waste, which have piled up at nu­clear plants, to in­terim storage sites, where they will be se­cured more safely and cheaply while the per­ma­nent de­pos­i­tory is per­mit­ted and con­structed. With the messy Yucca process in mind, an Obama-era blue-rib­bon com­mis­sion on nu­clear waste rec­om­mended en­tic­ing lo­cal­i­ties to volunteer to host waste sites with the sig­nif­i­cant eco­nomic ben­e­fits that such fa­cil­i­ties can bring to iso­lated com­mu­ni­ties. Though per­haps few places would volunteer, a co­op­er­a­tive ap­proach could re­sult in a smoother process and is worth a try. Congress has con­sid­ered leg­is­la­tion along these lines be­fore. It should do so again.

The na­tion’s nu­clear power plants gen­er­ate mas­sive amounts of elec­tric­ity with prac­ti­cally no car­bon diox­ide emis­sions. An­swer the waste ques­tion, and the tech­nol­ogy will look all the more valu­able.

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