the nevada independent logo
A view of the South Portal tunnel at Yucca Mountain on Saturday, July 14, 2018. Twelve members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee toured the proposed site for story nuclear waste. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

On May 15, the curios and keepsakes nearly shook off their shelves in the trailer Judy LaFountain shares with her mother in Luning. The largest earthquake to hit Nevada in 66 years announced itself before dawn in the tiny outpost in rural Mineral County.

With an epicenter 35 miles west of Tonopah, the 6.5 quake was felt from Reno to Boulder City, nearly the length of the state. Although no one was injured and it did relatively little property damage, it opened a dramatic crack across US 95 that closed the highway and diverted traffic through the vast space of rural western Nevada. 

“Mom’s cookie jar collection rattled and rolled,” LaFountain says. “It was quite an awakening. It was very scary. She was hanging onto her Roy Rogers cookie jar and Bob White dishes.”

With not so much as a plate chipped, LaFountain considers herself fortunate. Fact is, a lot of people got lucky even as the hits just keep coming with a dozen aftershocks rising to 4.5, 500 more at 2.5 or higher, and a 5.0 shaking the desert on Wednesday, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. In response, Gov. Steve Sisolak declared a state of emergency.

A lot more than a cookie jar collection is at stake for the Silver State. The vast midsection of the state might be sparsely populated, but the on-again, off-again proposed nuclear waste dumpsite at Yucca Mountain sits near the center of all that seismic activity. And with the Trump administration more volatile and unpredictable than any temblor, the specter of the zombie dump project returning to life remains an active concern in Nevada.

The news of the quake immediately caught the attention of venerated Yucca fighters former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and former Gov. and U.S. Sen. Richard Bryan, who spent much of their careers in an uphill battle against it. Our seismic activity alone should have been a deal breaker, they say

“This is one of the major objections Nevada has made from the beginning in opposing the ill-considered decision to place high-level nuclear waste in the state,” Bryan says.

“When I and others talked of centuries of seismic activity in the vicinity of Yucca, pundits opined that this was but an excuse,” Reid says. “The last couple of weeks the earthquakes have caused damage, for example, the cleavage on highway 95, necessitating significant road repair. There will be other quakes clearly showing Yucca Mountain is not a safe site for nuclear waste storage.”

As the senior member of the current Congressional delegation, Rep. Dina Titus has watched the Department of Energy and pro-Yucca allies in Washington downplay the state’s scientific, transportation and safety concerns at every turn. She doesn’t expect the quake and aftershocks to shake up the opposition, but the seismic issue does provide another wakeup call for the majority of Nevadans opposed to the project.

“Not only does that seismic activity put the storage site itself in jeopardy,” Titus says, “but all those trucks on the road and railroad cars transporting the waste would be affected as well as the site itself.”

If the recent earthquake hadn’t already awakened former three-term Nevada Attorney General Frankie Sue Del Papa in her Reno home, the threat of transporting tons of high-level nuclear waste in an earthquake zone might have.

“This is one of the reasons that we should not be home to a high-level radioactive waste dump,” Del Papa says. “We’re the third most seismically active state. This was a huge earthquake, and there’s almost no national news about it.”

For Del Papa, who served as AG from 1991 to 2003, the Yucca battle was part of the state’s daily agenda. She was part of the constant legal battle that continues to pit Nevada against some of the most influential forces in Washington.

That David vs. Goliath mismatch is something Reid and Bryan fought from before the 1987 “Screw Nevada” bill singled out the state as the sole site for the dump. That was about the time Titus was first elected to the state Senate, where she’d serve for 20 years before embarking on a congressional career now in its 10th year – all the while punching back at a proposal once thought to be inevitable.

Thanks in large part to Reid’s relationship with President Barack Obama, the state enjoyed a lengthy political armistice. But a new administration has sent mixed messages that once again have Nevada preparing for a fight. As if President Trump’s erratic daily behavior weren’t enough, there’s something about budget proposals that include funds for Yucca Mountain and the DOE shipping plutonium to Nevada that ought to have us questioning his true motives.

Given what’s at stake for Nevada, the recent earthquake and its many aftershocks should have roused us all from slumber.

John L. Smith is an author and longtime columnist. He was born in Henderson and his family’s Nevada roots go back to 1881. His stories have appeared in Time, Readers Digest, The Daily Beast, Reuters, Ruralite and Desert Companion, among others. He also offers weekly commentary on Nevada Public Radio station KNPR. His newest book—a biography of iconic Nevada civil rights and political leader, Joe Neal— “Westside Slugger: Joe Neal’s Lifelong Fight for Social Justice” is published by University of Nevada Press and is available at Contact him at [email protected] On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith

Comment Policy (updated 4/20/2021): Please keep your comments civil. We reserve the right to delete comments or ban users who engage in personal attacks, use an excess of profanity, make verifiably false statements or are otherwise nasty. Comments that contain links must be approved by admin.

Nevada Recovery Dashboard

The Nevada Independent will track the most important economic indicators across the state on this page.

What Happened Here: A six-part series on COVID-19 in Nevada

correct us
ideas & story tips