Mountain of doubt

Will the country’s only planned nuclear waste dump survive Obama?

  • Judith Lewis and Cindy Wehling

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Per Peterson argues that progress on the license shouldn't scare anyone; negative evaluation by regulators, in fact, might be the only way to mothball the proposed facility for good. "Anybody who really believes the site is unsuitable shouldn't have any worry about the outcome of an independent scientific review," Peterson says. If Obama interrupts that review to satisfy campaign promises, the president-elect is no better than a climate change-science denier, he says. "Politics needs to be informed by legitimate science."

Yet teasing politics out of nuclear waste disposal might well prove impossible. Yucca Mountain, as New York Times reporter Matthew Wald recently joked to Sproat, "was chosen by some of the best geologists in the U.S. Senate," many of whom were rushing home for Christmas break when they ruled. Even Sproat calls the site selection "a technically informed political decision." Yucca Mountain was born out of politics. It may die from them, too. But if it does, it will be a slow, complicated death.

On Nov. 6, two days after Obama's victory, Sproat went before a small audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., to talk about nuclear waste. The Las Vegas papers later quoted only a snippet of his remarks, in which he admitted that Obama could withdraw the license application; Congresswoman Berkley's office was running with that theme. But Sproat was not really so pessimistic. Halting the Yucca Mountain project "would basically cast the whole process and national strategy into a lot of confusion and uncertainty," he said. Whatever faith Nevada has invested in Obama, Sproat made clear that he has more in the future of their state's repository. And even if Sproat's out of his job by January, he's not giving it up. 

"It's going to be licensed and built in my expected lifetime," he said. "I truly believe that. And that's one of the reasons I'm in this job — to make that happen."