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.
Not so fast. Making sure construction doesn't occur during the Obama presidency isn't the same as shuttering and dismantling the facility (though repository construction hasn't begun, Department of Energy scientists and engineers continue to study the site). It appears the Obama team is happy to deprive Yucca Mountain of money--fulfilling a campaign pledge--while leaving the problem for future presidents and senators to handle. Indeed, there are practical complications that would prevent the Obama administration from doing anything other than that. Completely shutting down Yucca would be too costly, politically as well as financially.
Under the Nuclear Waste Act, the federal government has a legal obligation to collect and dispose of the spent fuel from the nation's 104 commercial nuclear reactors. To pay for it, the government began levying a surcharge on electricity generated from nuclear power in the early 1980s. Nearly $30 billion has been collected so far, a third of which has been spent on feasibility studies that have convinced government scientists that their plans for Yucca are sound.
The process has dragged out far longer than anyone expected. The law required the Department of Energy to begin accepting utilities' nuclear waste in 1998. The Energy Department's new target date for opening Yucca is after 2020, though officials have admitted even that date is unrealistic.
While waiting for the feds to get their act together, nuclear plant operators have been storing their waste in temporary facilities. All told, there are more than 120 temporary locations holding nuclear waste in 39 states. As a stopgap measure this has helped prevent the shutdown of the nuclear industry, which provides 20 percent of America's electric power. But many of these temporary storage pools and casks are nearing capacity. Plans to license and build new nuclear plants for the first time in decades may hinge, moreover, on a resolution to the waste issue.
The failure to have the repository substantially completed amounts to a default by the federal government on its legal obligation. Several electric utilities have sued the government over failure to accept their spent fuel under the terms of the Nuclear Waste Act, and courts have found the Department of Energy in partial breach of its obligations. But monetary judgments have been suspended since DOE can plausibly claim its attempts to fulfill those obligations were slowed by congressional intransigence (notably Harry Reid's).
Last year the Energy Department finally submitted its 8,600-page license application to build the repository to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, a critical step in the long journey to opening the facility. The NRC likely will take four years studying the scientific and safety issues before rendering a verdict.
In theory, Obama could withdraw the license application, which would go a long way to killing the -project. But not even the most ardent Yucca opponents think that will happen. Withdrawing the application would automatically place the federal government in full breach of its waste-retrieval obligations. Were that to happen, Washington would owe tens of billions of dollars in liabilities to commercial nuclear plant operators, yet would have us no closer to resolving the waste conundrum. That could stop the nuclear renaissance in its tracks, something for which Obama presumably does not want to be blamed.
President Obama's best bet is to ignore Harry Reid and refrain from making any significant decision about Yucca Mountain until the NRC rules on the project's scientific merits and safety concerns. Democrats have spent the last eight years charging the Bush administration with politicizing science. What would it say about Obama's inaugural address pledge to "restore science to its rightful place" if he were to disregard the scientific assessment of the NRC's technical experts in favor of the political pleadings of a lawyer from Searchlight?
Max Schulz is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.