The Magazine

Will Harry Reid's Dream Come True?

The majority leader's quest to kill America's nuclear waste repository continues.

Mar 9, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 24 • By MAX SCHULZ
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Yucca Mountain, Nevada

To stand on the windswept ridge atop Yucca Mountain is to wonder how on earth a place so remote and desolate could have inspired one of the nation's most contentious and longest-running political battles. Yucca Mountain was singled out by the federal government as the permanent repository for the nation's nuclear waste in 1987. Political squabbling and gamesmanship, however, have delayed even the first shovel from breaking ground to construct the facility. It's anyone's guess when, or if, it will ever open. The uncertain resolution of this battle means an uncertain future not just for Yucca Mountain, but for America's current nuclear power revival as well.

Not much happens at Yucca Mountain, located in the Mojave Desert about a two-hour drive from Las Vegas. More a mound than a soaring peak, it appears indistinguishable from the countless hills and buttes that can be spied for hundreds of miles. But it is this particular location's specific and peculiar degree of nothingness that places it at the forefront of the debate over nuclear power.

The 12-million-year-old mountain is among the most geologically stable locations identified by the U.S. Geological Survey. The water table sits 2,000 feet below the top of the mountain, and 1,000 feet below where the waste would be buried. The area's groundwater is part of the Death Valley hydrologic basin, separate from the Las Vegas area aquifer. The risk that well-sealed and well-secured nuclear waste could seep out to damage far-off population centers is negligible, but even that overstates the hazard. It is precisely because nothing happens at Yucca Mountain that it is an ideal locale to entomb the radioactive waste produced by the United States' 104 commercial nuclear reactors. Nevada's political class, most notably Senate majority leader Harry Reid, disagrees.

That there is any controversy over the proposed site is ironic, given the Silver State's nuclear history. Yucca Mountain sits on the western edge of the Nevada Test Site, a 1,350 square mile federal preserve that served for decades as the proving ground for America's nuclear weapons arsenal. Starting in the 1950s, the federal government detonated close to 1,000 atomic weapons on the site, or roughly half of all known nuclear explosions the planet has endured. Fully 100 of these were above-ground nuclear explosions, many far greater than the blasts that ended World War II. Yet other than craters formed by the atomic bombardment in this lunar-like landscape, southern Nevada seems none the worse off. The fallout from routinely detonating nuclear bombs 90 miles from Las Vegas had little impact on the town as it grew from a sleepy, mobbed-up gambling outpost to the spectacular Sin City of the present day.

Nevadans once embraced their state's role as the nation's nuclear handler. Clark County, for instance, at one time featured a mushroom cloud in its official seal. The old Sands Hotel on the Vegas Strip didn't just birth the Rat Pack; it also crowned a "Miss Atomic Bomb," adorning the beauty in a mushroom-cloud-themed swimsuit for publicity stills.

No longer. The default position for Nevada's elected officials today is implacable opposition to the repository. No politician embodies this resistance more than Reid, the bland trial lawyer from colorfully named Searchlight. As majority leader, with a new president in Barack Obama who also opposes opening Yucca, Reid must think his dream of driving a stake through the heart of the Yucca Mountain project finally is within reach.

So far, though, it's not looking good for Reid. Shortly after November's election, the majority leader brazenly vowed to sink any nominee for energy secretary who was not opposed to Yucca Mountain. Then Obama selected Steven Chu, a Nobel-winning physicist who is an enthusiastic backer of nuclear power. As director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Chu lent his signature to a report advocating licensing Yucca Mountain as part of an integrated approach to managing spent nuclear fuel. Reid quietly backed down, and Chu's nomination sailed through.

Reid claims he has spoken recently with the president about Yucca Mountain, and their plan is to starve the project of funding to ensure it doesn't get built. Indeed, the proposed budget Obama unveiled last week would limit federal spending on Yucca Mountain this year to less than $300 million, which would be close to a record low for the 22-year-old project. Senator Reid says this proves the project is dead.