Is Yucca Mountain back on the table?

Obama mothballed the nuclear waste storage project. Now some Republicans seem determined to bring it back out.

 

This month, a long-debated proposal for a controversial nuclear dumping site took a small step forward.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission released a report examining potential groundwater contamination from burying the toxic remnants of nuclear energy production under Yucca Mountain, in Nevada. The report found that leakage from the site, a desert ridge 100 miles west of Las Vegas, would likely have only small impacts on cancer rates or hereditary diseases in humans and minimal impacts on the downstream environment.

The report was the latest in a series from the NRC and a supplement to the site's original environmental impact statement, first completed in 2002. The first four reports focused on the safety of the site before, during and after construction, and examined the Department of Energy's ability to build the site. In recent months, Republicans, emboldened by the NRC reports and the impending departure of the site's strongest opponent, have been trying to revive the long-dormant project. Yucca funding is shaping up to be a topic of lively debate this fall during the 2016 budgeting process, but it faces considerable obstacles to being approved.

For decades, nuclear waste has been kept in facilities around the country intended only to temporarily store the dangerous and slowly decaying material. Yucca Mountain was supposed to be a more permanent fix: a safe, remote location to bury the waste forever. But since the site was originally designated in 1987, local opposition and wider concerns about the site's safety have grown. President Obama revoked federal backing for the application in 2010, and licensing to develop the site stalled out. Harry Reid, the senior senator from Nevada and a longtime opponent, applauded the move and declared the project effectively dead.

The crest of Yucca Mountain.
Courtesy of U.S. Department of Energy

But it got a boost in 2013 when the U.S. Court of Appeals in D.C. forced the NRC to complete the long-delayed reports on the site's safety. Those reports started coming out shortly after court decision and the technical safety evaluations were completed this spring. They offered mixed statements on the potential safety of the site. Still, their release pushed the project back into the national conversation, and potentially back into play.

Congress faces an Oct. 1 deadline to come up with a national budget. Though it seems likely the two chambers will try and pass a stopgap bill that will keep funding at current levels and give Congress time to negotiate a more long-term budget plan. Yucca could play a role in those budget negotiations; the House 2016 budget bill includes funding for the embattled storage facility and Reid, the project's staunchest opponent, announced plans to retire at the end of his term next year. In recent months, House Republicans, led by Rep. John Shimkus from Illinois, successfully pushed to request $150 million for Yucca licensing.

Although House Republicans are angling for progress on Yucca, that provision is unlikely to make it past the Senate. The Senate budget bill has no additional funds for the project and Democrats have staunchly opposed the addition of any. Even if Senate Democrats' objections were overruled, a final budget that includes funding for Yucca from Obama.

The proposed design of the site.
Courtesy of U.S. Department of Energy

The logistics of getting the facility online again also pose a barrier to renewing the Yucca project. When Obama shuttered Yucca, which once hosted researchers and operators, five years ago, the site's staff were moved elsewhere and day-to-day operations in the current facilities were shut down. To get it going again, basic functions would have to resume, a costly proposition. On top of that, the licensing process, which is only about halfway done, is likely to be lengthy and expensive. And at least for now, the Department of Energy has withdrawn its support for the now-languishing application there's not even an official application being considered.

Instead, Democrats say the focus for the nuclear waste problem should be on acquiring funds for short-term storage. Also, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., says, focus should be on repairing the only permanent facility in existence, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, near Carlsbad, New Mexico. An accident there last year caused a small but noteworthy nuclear waste leak.

"You could fill Yucca tomorrow and you'd still need more (space), so what we want to do is get on with the WIPP facility (getting) fixed," Feinstein . Instead of Yucca, which has been mired in politics for years, she said lawmakers should focus on areas where they could actually make progress. "We know there are other states that would like to have a repository and get some of those things going."

Kate Schimel is a correspondent for HCN and is based in Seattle, Washington.

NewTowncarShare News Classifieds
  • Everland Mountain Retreat includes 318 mountaintop acres with a 3,200 square foot lodge and two smaller homes. Endless vistas of the Appalachian mountains, open skies,...
  • Home Resource is a non-profit community sustainability center. We work with, in, and for the community to reduce waste and build a more vibrant and...
  • Spectacular views of snowcapped Sierras. 15 miles from Kings Canyon/Sequoia Parks. 47 acres with 2 homes/75' pool/gym/patios/gardens. 1670 sq.ft. main home has 3 bdrm/1 bath....
  • Borderlands Restoration Network 501c3 is hiring a full-time Development Director. Description and job details can be found at https://www.borderlandsrestoration.org/job-opportunities.html
  • Beautiful off-the-grid passive solar near the CDT. 9.4 acres, north of Silver City. Sam, 575.388.1921
  • The City of Fort Collins is seeking an Environmental Planning Manager in the Natural Areas Department. The Department has an annual budget of approximately $13...
  • We are seeking an experienced designer to be the team lead for web development and digital media. Part creator and part planner, this person should...
  • Vermont Law School seeks a Faculty Director for its Environmental and Natural Resources Law Clinic (ENRLC) to commence in the Summer or Fall of 2019....
  • at RCAC. See the full description at https://bit.ly/2WJ3HvY Apply at [email protected]
  • The Utah Rivers Council is looking for an energetic individual with strong communication and organizing skills. The Grassroots Organizer works to ensure our campaigns are...
  • Newly refurbished and tuned. Older model, great condition. Gasoline engine. Chains on tires. Heavy duty for mountain snow. Call cellphone and leave message or email.
  • Hiring a part-time ranch manager to live on The Nature Conservancy's Carpenter Ranch property in Hayden, CO. Responsibilities include: facility maintenance of historic ranch house,...
  • unique custom home in Sangre de Cristo Mountains of CO near La Veta Pass, 3 bed, 2 1/2 bath, private gated park, two hours from...
  • Kaniksu Land Trust, a community-supported non-profit land trust serving north Idaho and northwest Montana, is in search of a new executive director. The ideal candidate...
  • The Flathead Lakers are seeking a dynamic, self-motivated and proven leader to be our next Executive Director (ED).
  • The Blackfoot Challenge, a renowned collaborative conservation org in MT, seeks our next ED.
  • 10-day tour from Los Mochis airport, 2/nyts El Fuerte, train, 2/nyts canyon rim hotel, 5/nyts camping. 520-324-0209, www.coppercanyontrails.org.
  • Earthjustice is hiring for a Staff Attorney
  • to lead an organization that funds projects in National Parks. Major gift fundraising and public lands experience critical. PD and app details @ peopleinparks.org.
  • Visit our website for full description and to apply.No phone calls please. NPCA is an EOE.