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Nevada nuclear commission ready to strike back after pro-Yucca hearing in Congress

Comments in a House hearing raised fears that Congress may reopen nuclear waste issue after election, and that state needs to be more proactive in fighting it.
Gabby Birenbaum
Gabby Birenbaum
CongressEnvironmentGovernmentSouthern NevadaYucca Mountain

Earlier this month, a congressional subcommittee met to discuss spent nuclear fuel and where to store it — setting off alarms for opponents of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, the federal site in Nye County designated to store the nation’s high-level nuclear waste that has nonetheless sat vacant for decades due to intense regional opposition.

Two weeks later, the Nevada Commission on Nuclear Projects held its first meeting of the year to discuss the antagonistic tenor of the subcommittee meeting — and strategize for how to beat back a potential new wave of Yucca enthusiasm after the 2024 election.

“[The hearing] is a problem,” said Fred Dilger, the director of the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects. “It suggests to us that the pro-Yucca faction may be back after November.”

Members of the commission — which advises the governor and Legislature on radioactive waste issues — said they and Nevada’s congressional delegation were taken aback by the harsh tenor and lack of knowledge that subcommittee members displayed during the April 10 hearing. Key subcommittee members referred to Yucca as a “technically successful” program that has only been stymied by politics from “states like Nevada.”

While no new legislation or funding has been proposed this Congress, the commission believes the subcommittee members’ frustration is worthy of strategic response, particularly because of existing technical issues with the site that they say members and witnesses did not acknowledge. 

Even if a newly seated Congress in 2025 is interested in allocating funds to restart the licensing process for Yucca Mountain, Nevada has a number of baked-in processes meant to muck up the works.

Though the proposed repository is on federal land, the Department of Energy would still need to pursue a license application to use and build the site, given that the only existing infrastructure is a tunnel within the mountain. Doing so, according to government estimates, would cost $1.66 billion just on licensing — which the state would fight in court through existing challenges over water rights — and could take up to 10 years. Even if the license application is ultimately granted, construction would then cost between $75 billion and $119 billion.

In addition, there are practical challenges that have severely curtailed the ability to transport nuclear waste to Nevada. There are no existing rail lines nor right-of-ways to Yucca Mountain, and existing tribal lands and the Basin and Range National Monument stand in the way of potential shipping routes.

Scores of Nevada politicians and geologists alike have argued against the repository on the basis of science and national security. On the latter point, Dilger said new developments at Creech Air Force Base — less than 50 miles from Yucca — to build out satellite launch capacity and the proximity between aerial combat training at Southern Nevada’s various military installations and the proposed nuclear waste repository bolster the national security argument, and make the Air Force a likely ally in the fight to kill the program. 

“They're very jealous of their ability to do the things they want to do in that operating area,” Dilger said. “And Yucca Mountain would compromise that. There's no disagreement between ourselves and the Department of Energy about that.”

And he added that recent high-profile transportation incidents — from the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio to the recent collapse of the Key Bridge in Baltimore — could bolster safety arguments in the existing accident-prone mountain passes around Nevada, where nuclear waste would need to be transported. 

Despite all of the practicalities on their side, commission members agreed that when it comes to Yucca, they can never be too careful — and wondered aloud whether they should have been more aggressive in the run-up to the hearing.

In 2022, the state filed a legal motion with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission asking it to dismiss the Yucca licensing project, coinciding with a targeted social media campaign for policymakers and nuclear energy wonks. But that motion took place under Gov. Steve Sisolak (D); once Gov. Joe Lombardo (R) took office, Dilger said the governor’s office was “reluctant” to engage in media efforts this past fall.

Lombardo’s spokesperson Elizabeth Ray said the governor’s office supports the agency’s work and “looks forward to the appropriate implementation of their community outreach strategy.”

Board members noted that the agency is still actively educating policymakers on the issue, and suggested better coordinating those efforts with Clark County and the City of Las Vegas.

Forecasting the future

Dilger said that he does not expect the upcoming presidential election to have an impact on whether the federal government takes another swing at licensing Yucca. The Biden administration has been consistent in opposing any new funding for Yucca and following the Nevada delegation’s preferred approach of consent-based siting. While former president Donald Trump initially included Yucca funding in his budgets — though it never passed the Senate — he reversed course in 2020. 

Politically, given Nevada’s status as a pivotal swing state, presidential candidates have little incentive to pick a fight with Nevada voters during an election year. 

Dilger said that unlike in the first few decades of the Yucca fight, both the nuclear industry and the Department of Energy would prefer a new approach and recognize that the project is functionally dead, between scientific, practical and financial challenges. However, he fears a new pro-nuclear group in Congress reviving the issue.

“It's a very odd situation,” he said. “But until we get legislation to kill Yucca Mountain, and start a search for a new repository, we're on the hook.”

However, a future Trump administration could pose a threat to anti-Yucca advocates given recommendations from Project 2025, a constellation of policy plans for the executive branch created by numerous former Trump officials and allied conservative groups, including the Heritage Foundation.

On nuclear energy, the Project 2025 authors are explicit, calling for the restart of the Yucca Mountain licensing process. They also want to reconstitute the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management (OCRWM), the agency that first selected Yucca Mountain as the high-level nuclear waste storage site and which was dismantled by the Obama administration.

The reestablished OCRWM would be responsible for “developing the next steps” with respect to Yucca, including reforming the Nuclear Waste Policy Act to encourage privatization of nuclear waste storage.

While Project 2025 also urges the next administration to use consent-based siting to identify and build new repositories, and says that finishing the Yucca application process does not represent a commitment to completing the facility, authors made it clear that Yucca is not off the table.

“Consent-based siting for a civilian waste nuclear repository has been a way to delay any politically painful decisions about siting a permanent civilian nuclear waste facility,” they write.

Former Sen. Richard Bryan (D-NV), the chair of the commission, reiterated that the onus is on Nevada to respond to any threat — including from the subcommittee.

Bryan said the congressional delegation was working on a united further action to educate members on the risks Yucca poses, led by Rep. Dina Titus (D-NV). Titus sent a letter to the subcommittee on the day of the hearing; a spokesperson for her office confirmed discussions are ongoing for next steps.

“If we're not able to communicate these concerns to subcommittee members [and] to others, then we're in effect unilaterally disarming ourselves,” Bryan said. 


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