Is Yucca Mountain back on the table?

Obama mothballed the nuclear waste storage project. Now some Republicans seem determined to bring it back out.

 

This month, a long-debated proposal for a controversial nuclear dumping site took a small step forward.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission released a report examining potential groundwater contamination from burying the toxic remnants of nuclear energy production under Yucca Mountain, in Nevada. The report found that leakage from the site, a desert ridge 100 miles west of Las Vegas, would likely have only small impacts on cancer rates or hereditary diseases in humans and minimal impacts on the downstream environment.

The report was the latest in a series from the NRC and a supplement to the site's original environmental impact statement, first completed in 2002. The first four reports focused on the safety of the site before, during and after construction, and examined the Department of Energy's ability to build the site. In recent months, Republicans, emboldened by the NRC reports and the impending departure of the site's strongest opponent, have been trying to revive the long-dormant project. Yucca funding is shaping up to be a topic of lively debate this fall during the 2016 budgeting process, but it faces considerable obstacles to being approved.

For decades, nuclear waste has been kept in facilities around the country intended only to temporarily store the dangerous and slowly decaying material. Yucca Mountain was supposed to be a more permanent fix: a safe, remote location to bury the waste forever. But since the site was originally designated in 1987, local opposition and wider concerns about the site's safety have grown. President Obama revoked federal backing for the application in 2010, and licensing to develop the site stalled out. Harry Reid, the senior senator from Nevada and a longtime opponent, applauded the move and declared the project effectively dead.

The crest of Yucca Mountain.
Courtesy of U.S. Department of Energy

But it got a boost in 2013 when the U.S. Court of Appeals in D.C. forced the NRC to complete the long-delayed reports on the site's safety. Those reports started coming out shortly after court decision and the technical safety evaluations were completed this spring. They offered mixed statements on the potential safety of the site. Still, their release pushed the project back into the national conversation, and potentially back into play.

Congress faces an Oct. 1 deadline to come up with a national budget. Though it seems likely the two chambers will try and pass a stopgap bill that will keep funding at current levels and give Congress time to negotiate a more long-term budget plan. Yucca could play a role in those budget negotiations; the House 2016 budget bill includes funding for the embattled storage facility and Reid, the project's staunchest opponent, announced plans to retire at the end of his term next year. In recent months, House Republicans, led by Rep. John Shimkus from Illinois, successfully pushed to request $150 million for Yucca licensing.

Although House Republicans are angling for progress on Yucca, that provision is unlikely to make it past the Senate. The Senate budget bill has no additional funds for the project and Democrats have staunchly opposed the addition of any. Even if Senate Democrats' objections were overruled, a final budget that includes funding for Yucca could face a veto from Obama.

The proposed design of the site.
Courtesy of U.S. Department of Energy

The logistics of getting the facility online again also pose a barrier to renewing the Yucca project. When Obama shuttered Yucca, which once hosted researchers and operators, five years ago, the site's staff were moved elsewhere and day-to-day operations in the current facilities were shut down. To get it going again, basic functions would have to resume, a costly proposition. On top of that, the licensing process, which is only about halfway done, is likely to be lengthy and expensive. And at least for now, the Department of Energy has withdrawn its support for the now-languishing application there's not even an official application being considered.

Instead, Democrats say the focus for the nuclear waste problem should be on acquiring funds for short-term storage. Also, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., says, focus should be on repairing the only permanent facility in existence, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, near Carlsbad, New Mexico. An accident there last year caused a small but noteworthy nuclear waste leak.

"You could fill Yucca tomorrow and you'd still need more (space), so what we want to do is get on with the WIPP facility (getting) fixed," Feinstein told E&E News in June. Instead of Yucca, which has been mired in politics for years, she said lawmakers should focus on areas where they could actually make progress. "We know there are other states that would like to have a repository and get some of those things going."

Kate Schimel is a correspondent for HCN and is based in Seattle, Washington.

High Country News Classifieds
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Crested Butte Land Trust seeks a development director to lead its fundraising efforts. Remote and unspoiled, Crested Butte is located in one of the Rockies...
  • PRICE REDUCED $94,300 - LOT SOUTH OF MONTROSE
    5-Acre Home Site, Great Views with Spectacular Sunsets From a South Facing Home Site. Excellent for Passive Solar Design. Covenants, No HOA. Keller Williams Co....
  • CHARMING HOME/FARM NEAR CLIFF, NM
    3 bed/2 bath, detached strawbale building. 11.7 acres, barn, corrals, fenced. Wells, solar panels, greenhouses. Paved access. 575-535-2568.
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    WildEarth Guardians seeks two public interest-focused staff attorneys with a minimum of 5 years experience to join our legal team. Experience with at least some...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF NEW MEXICO WILDLIFE FEDERATION
    The New Mexico Wildlife Federation is seeking an Executive Director, a visionary leader who is passionate about public lands, dedicated to executing an innovative strategic...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE SPECIALIST I
    HIGH COUNTRY NEWS Customer Service Specialist I General Statement of Duties: Works closely with the customer service manager performing high-volume routine computer database work. Also...
  • FINANCE ASSOCITE
    We are hiring a Finance Associate Full time, competitive pay and benefits, based in Bozeman,MT Visit www.greateryellowstone.org/careers for details GYC is an equal opportunity employer
  • ARAVAIPA LAND STEWARD
    The Aravaipa Land Steward coordinates preserve stewardship work and general operations including maintenance and general preserve management. Implements preserve management plans, which may include species...
  • VP OF DEVELOPMENT
    seeks a talented and dynamic development professional, with a passion for protecting our natural environment, to lead our development and fundraising team.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Native American Fish and Wildlife Society seeks an Executive Director in Denver, CO to serve as the Chief Administrator of the national Native American...
  • DEVELOPMENT ASSISTANT
    High Country News seeks a development assistant to assist with fundraising campaigns. HCN is an award-winning, national news magazine. Strong candidates will have experience administering...
  • LAND ACQUISTIONS SPECIALIST - RENEWABLE ENERGY
    Energiekontor US seeks experienced local candidate, must reside in western South Dakota. Send resume and cover letter to: [email protected]
  • WILDLAND FIRE INSTRUCTOR
    Needed: instructor with 5 years *documented* instruction experience, current qualifications, M-410 or equivalent, and able to work as-needed for NM non-profit working with at-risk youth.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Seeking passionate full-time Executive to lead the oldest non-profit organization in Idaho. Must have knowledge of environmental issues, excellent organizational, verbal presentation and written skills,...
  • CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    Carbondale based public lands advocate, Wilderness Workshop, seeks a Conservation Director to help direct and shape the future of public land conservation on the West...
  • TROUT UNLIMITED BIGHORN RIVER BASIN PROJECT MANAGER
    The Bighorn River Basin Project Manager identifies and implements projects to improve streamflows, restore stream and riparian habitat, improve fish passage and rehabilitate or replace...
  • DIRECTOR OF VISITOR SERVICES & BOOKSTORE OPERATIONS
    The San Juan Mountains Association in Durango, CO is seeking a Director of Visitor Services & Bookstore Operations to lead our visitor information program &...
  • INTERNET-BASED BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Dream of owning your own business, being your own boss, working from home ... this is the one. 928-380-6570, www.testshop.com. More info at https://bit.ly/2Kgi340.
  • TRIPLEX .8 ACRE KANAB, UT
    Create a base in the center of Southern Utah's Grand Circle of National Parks. Multiple residential property with three established rental units and zoning latitude...