by Jacob Solis and Joey Lovato
The U.S. has a nuclear waste problem.
There are 61 power plants operating 99 nuclear reactors across 30 states that, combined, have produced a little more than 76,000 metric tons of nuclear waste in the last 40 years, according to numbers from the Nuclear Energy Institute. That includes both low-level waste, which decays to background-radiation levels within 500 years, and high-level waste, which can sometimes retain lethal levels of radiation for thousands of years, like some isotopes of plutonium.
Right now, most of the waste nuclear power plants produce—about 20 metric tons per year—is stored on site in above-ground low-level waste facilities. When it comes to military waste, waste from the development of nuclear weapons is stored in the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico, more than 2,000 feet underground. However, that facility will only be operational for another 18 years before it is permanently sealed off and the facility is closed.
But for decades after the U.S. entered into the atomic age, it searched high and low for somewhere to store its deadly, high-level waste. Much of the most dangerous waste was stored in Hanford, Washington at the so-called “Hanford Site.” By the end of the Cold War, more than 53 million gallons of high-level waste was being stored there. However, the site is increasingly plagued by dangerous problems, like when part of a tunnel collapsed there in May of this year.
But the issues at Hanford and at some other sites around the country have done little to expedite the process for finding, approving and building a long-term high-level nuclear waste storage facility, a process that stretches back decades.
It was 1978 when the U.S. Department of Energy began researching possible candidates for a long-term storage site, and by 1982 had narrowed the list to just 10 sites across six states. In 1985, President Ronald Reagan narrowed the list again to just three sites: Hanford, Deaf Smith County, Texas, and Yucca Mountain.
About 90 miles north of Las Vegas, the planned mountain facility would hold 150 million pounds of high-level nuclear waste for over 10,000 years in tunnels deep underground. Those underground tunnels have been made more necessary by the fact that high-level radiation must be both cooled and shielded in order to be stored safely.
Finally, in 1987, Yucca was designated as the permanent storage facility by amendments to the Nuclear Waste Policies Act. Though in Nevada, some came up with a different name: “the Screw Nevada Bill.”
There are a couple reasons why most Nevada politicians—from governor-turned-senator Richard Bryan to longtime Senate powerhouse Harry Reid to current Gov. Brian Sandoval—have staunchly opposed the plan. First, it’s just plain unpopular among most Nevadans. A January poll from The Nevada Independent and The Mellman Group found 58 percent of Nevadans oppose Yucca, while just 33 percent favor it.
Second, it’s been difficult for proponents of the plan to shake the state’s accusation that shipping deadly nuclear waste to a state with no nuclear power plants of its own isn’t somehow foisting the problems of other states onto Nevada’s shoulders.
And third, Nevada has long argued that Yucca, contrary to the conclusion of the DOE, is not safe for long-term storage. The state’s Commission on Nuclear Projects says that not only is it dangerous to ship the waste so close to Las Vegas (a metro area with more than 2 million residents), but also that Yucca straddles both a fault line and an aquifer and would be a prime candidate for disaster.
Thus, it was little surprise when, in 1998, the facility missed its planned opening date. After years of on-again, off-again fights in Congress, it was in 2009 when finally, after a nudge from then-senate majority leader Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nevada, President Obama’s Energy Secretary Steven Chu told the U.S. Senate that Yucca was no longer an option for the storage of nuclear waste.
Since then, even after billions of dollars were spent on researching the mountain and boring some of the facility’s exploratory tunnels, the Yucca Mountain project has been shuttered.
However, ever since President Donald J. Trump was elected late last year, there have been rumblings in Capitol Hill about reviving the dormant Yucca Mountain. Early this year, new funds for the project appeared in Trump’s initial budget proposal, prompting some in Nevada’s congressional delegation to turn to then-nominee for Energy Secretary Rick Perry for assurances.
At a town hall in April, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nevada, who voted to confirm Perry as energy secretary, defended her vote by saying her seat on the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources would hold the Secretary to his promise not to reopen the shuttered facility.
“I did not agree with everything that Secretary Perry stands for, I can tell you that,” Cortez Masto said. “But there are things that have concerned me —and had the opportunity to talk to him specifically about—and one of my biggest concerns was Yucca Mountain and making sure we are doing everything we can to find allies who will continue to work with us to prevent that nuclear waste from coming into Nevada.”
Those hopes, however, have been continually dashed in the months since. In March, the now-confirmed Perry toured the Yucca Mountain facility, prompting Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval to express his displeasure in a statement.
“Beyond the courtroom, I will continue to press the Trump Administration to re-assess its actions to resurrect this dormant project,” Sandoval said. “A better solution began earlier this year, when the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, working with the consent of a host state, accepted for review a private sector application for a high-level waste storage site in Texas. In the wake of such developments, continuing to spend taxpayer money on Yucca Mountain is ill-advised.”
And in late April, when the debate appeared to be reaching Congress, Sandoval pushed back once again, saying that the state would “continue to oppose the storage of high-level nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain at every turn.”
But even with opposition from the governor and five out of six of the state’s Congress members (the one defector being Republican Rep. Mark Amodei, who represents much of rural Northern Nevada), the efforts to reopen Yucca appear to be moving at full steam. In June, the current bill cleared the House Energy and Commerce Committee by a vote of 59–4.
Though while the facility at Yucca is complete, it would cost millions to actually update and prepare for operation, and then billions and billions more to actually start storing material there. The current process would only provide money to jumpstart the licensing process for the facility and “initiate a robust interim storage program.”
However, the estimated cost of the project to date is roughly $100 billion, and that is to ignore Nevada’s 218 legal contentions against the restart of the projects, of which the legal battles and hearings would take roughly five years and cost an estimated $2 billion.
Even so, Republicans in Washington still seem eager to get the process started. Just last week Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., the chair of the House subcommittee on energy and commerce, came to Reno to pitch the plan to a group of Northern Nevada business leaders.
“The Yucca Mountain issue has never been totally shut down,” Shimkus said.“Maybe it’s been on life support, but it’s never been totally shut down.”
And there are still some Nevadans who favor Yucca, too, especially in the state’s rural counties. Nye County in particular, which would house the facility, has advocated strongly for the project’s continuation.
But even irrespective of Nevada’s pushes for or against Yucca, the nuclear industry has been pushing Washington to find a solution for their growing waste problem and the legal battles have already cost the U.S. $5 billion — costs that the Nuclear Energy Institute estimates will more than triple by 2022.
That’s in addition to renewed pushes from several states for a long-term solution. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is suing the federal governmentto take a vote on Yucca Mountain, and the timeline of that suit lines up squarely with the timeline of the renewed push to reopen the mothballed facility.
Ultimately, it will be a fight that won’t be ending anytime soon.