by Gary Martin, Las Vegas Review-Journal, December 27, 2021
WASHINGTON — Mounting opposition to proposed nuclear waste storage sites in Texas and New Mexico has kept Yucca Mountain in the national debate over what to do with the growing stockpile of radioactive material scattered around the country.
The Biden administration is opposed to Yucca Mountain and announced plans this month to send waste to places where state, local and tribal governments agree to accept it. That stance is shared by Nevada elected officials, tribal leaders and business and environmental groups.
But until the 1987 Nuclear Waste Policy Act is changed by Congress, the controversial Nevada site just 90 miles north of Las Vegas remains the designated permanent storage site for spent fuel rods from commercial nuclear plants.
“That’s what worries me. Until you get a policy in place, it will always be something you have to watch,” said Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev.
An expert on atomic testing and American politics, Titus as a UNLV professor wrote a 1986 book on Nevada’s nuclear past. As an elected state and congressional lawmaker, she has opposed a permanent storage facility at Yucca Mountain.
Titus introduced legislation in past sessions of Congress that adopts recommendations by a 2012 Blue Ribbon Commission under the Obama administration that would send waste to states that want it.
Similar legislation has been filed in the Senate by Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., a former state attorney general who also has fought federal efforts to build a repository at Yucca Mountain.
The legislation has failed to pass, as lawmakers from both parties who represent states with nuclear power plants seek a quick solution to waste disposal.
“I’ve always fought misguided efforts to deposit nuclear waste in Nevada, and I’ll keep working with the Nevada delegation to pass my consent-based siting bill that would ensure these dangerous materials are never dumped on our state,” Cortez Masto said.
Wastes piling up
The Biden administration has since proposed to fund interim storage in light of the 30-year stalemate over Yucca Mountain, due to growing need to address stockpiles of radioactive waste at decommissioned and operating plants across the country.
As of 2019, about 86,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel was being stored at 119 sites, according to the Department of Energy.
There are about 95 power plants operating in 29 states, currently, generating 2,900 metric tons a year. And, there are 38 reactors in 30 states in various stages of decommissioning. The waste is stored in casks, a former Energy Department adviser, Robert Alvarez, told an Environmental and Energy Study Institute briefing last year.
The Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, issued a report in September recommending storing the waste in places where local and state officials would agree to accept it. The reporting cited the dangerous characteristics of nuclear waste and need for safe disposal.
Energy Secretary Jen Granholm announced this month that the department was seeking recommendations from states, cities, industry officials and others on locations where officials were willing to accept spent fuel and materials.
The plan announced by Granholm is expected to take up to two years to research and determine costs.
The plan announced by the Department of Energy essentially restarts a process that began under the Obama administration with a recommendation from a Blue Ribbon Commission that suggested “consent-based siting” with local input as the most effective way to develop storage sites.
That did not occur in Nevada.
Yucca Mountain was designated by Congress as the sole site for permanent storage in 1987 after other sites in Kansas, Tennessee and Utah were rejected. Since that time, more than $15 billion has been spent on research and exploration at Yucca Mountain.
Local opposition in Nevada, led by former Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., and other state elected officials blocked development of the project, until President George W. Bush directed the Department of Energy to seek a construction license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
The licensing process, however, was halted by President Barack Obama and Reid, who as Senate majority leader, pulled funding for the application. A federal court allowed funds already earmarked for licensing to continue to be spent.
President Donald Trump’s election brought a new push for licensing by Energy Secretary Rick Perry, who like Bush was a former Texas governor. Despite political opposition from former Nevada Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval and the entire state congressional delegation, the Trump administration pushed to develop Yucca Mountain.
Perry repeatedly told Congress that he was following the 1987 law as he moved forward on licensing for nuclear storage at the designated Yucca Mountain site.
But Trump later flip-flopped on Yucca Mountain as he sought re-election with Nevada a part of his campaign strategy.
After the election, the Biden administration budgeted funding for commercial operators to take control of some waste at interim sites.
Alternatives face opposition
Texas-based Interim Storage Partners received approval from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in September to store 5,000 metric tons at an interim facility in Andrews County, located in the Permian Basin region.
But Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has led Texas opposition against the interim storage site, facing federal court challenge, arguing against transportation of hazardous waste through the state and raising the specter that the facility could become a de facto permanent repository.
In a refrain heard for decades in Nevada, Abbott pronounced that “Texas will not become America’s nuclear waste dumping ground.”
Titus called Texas officials disingenuous. “They thought it was fine when they were trying to put it here,” Titus quipped.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission also is expected to approve interim storage at another site in southeast New Mexico operated by Holtec International, which was invited by local officials and a local energy alliance to submit an application for waste storage.
New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, is leading opposition to that interim storage facility citing safety and environmental concerns also mentioned by officials in Nevada and Texas.
Opponents also point to the 1987 law that designates the Nevada site as the only one for a repository.
But the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board determined that amendments to the 1987 law were not needed to license an interim facility, and the full commission agreed, according to spokesman David McIntyre.
He noted that the issue is under court review.
Holtec maintains that it can provide a safe, secure storage on an interim basis for waste currently scattered across the country. The company plans to build a facility to begin storing waste as early as 2024, said Joe Delmar, senior director for government affairs and communications.
“Spent fuel and high-level waste can be safely stored until the federal government identifies a permanent solution,” Delmar said.
The French have used recycled nuclear fuel since the 1970s with technology developed by the United States. The process was banned in 1977 in this country by President Jimmy Carter because of concerns about proliferation of nuclear weapons.
Still, reprocessing waste is mentioned as an alternative, or partial solution, to address the problem by the Nuclear Energy Institute, the advocacy group for the industry.
Some proponents see reprocessing as an economic carrot to entice storage. In Nevada, Nye County officials view storage alone as a potential economic boom to their jurisdiction, where Yucca Mountain is located, because of the high-paying jobs and local tax revenue it would create.
There are no current plans for spent nuclear fuel reprocessing plants under consideration in the United States.
And a Department of Energy plant in South Carolina that aimed to turn weapons-grade plutonium into nuclear fuel was shuttered in 2018 by the Trump administration. Although 70 percent completed, construction of the plant was terminated because of national defense concerns.
Titus said costs to build reprocessing plants are prohibitive, although she does not oppose recycling spent fuel.
Yucca not viable
The Government Accountability Office report said most experts agree that building Yucca Mountain is neither socially nor politically viable.
“Congress should consider amending the Nuclear Waste Policy Act to authorize a new consent-based process for siting, developing, and constructing consolidated interim storage and permanent repository facilities for commercial spent nuclear fuel,” the report recommended.
It also recommended Congress direct the Department of Energy to develop a strategy for transportation of spent fuel and management of interim and permanent repositories to address the waste problem.
But congressional inaction is blamed in the report for the 30-year impasse over disposing of the waste.
And lawmakers in the House and Senate, who represent communities with operating or decommissioned plants, continue to view Yucca Mountain as part of the long-term solution to storing of nuclear waste.
“That’s why I’ll never let my guard down,” Titus said.
Contact Gary Martin at gmartin @reviewjournal.com. Follow @garymartindc on Twitter.