By Dan Schinhofen
On September 5, 1977, the Voyager 1 space craft set off on a journey that would take it out of our solar system. Man’s first interstellar vehicle was on its way. The scientists and engineers who built Voyager weren’t just thinking about a few planets; rather, they put something out there to let the universe know we are here. They also included a recording of the history of Earth and man as it was known. These scientists didn’t just include American history but also made sure to include culture from the entire planet.
With the most advanced systems of that time, they had Voyager ready to launch in just five years.
During the same year that we, as a nation, reached beyond our solar system, talks were finally getting real about building a National Repository that would satisfy the Federal Government’s pledge to deal with spent nuclear fuel rods.
Congress began hearings and drafted legislation to get the job done. Five years after the talks began, the Nuclear Waste Policy Act was passed by both Houses of Congress. Three sites were initially selected to be studied. Political machinations attempted to scuttle the repository program, and with Congress attempting to salvage the Nuclear Waste Policy Act program, Yucca Mountain in Nye County, Nevada, ended up as the only site to be studied.
For nearly thirty years, tests were conducted, a tunnel was built into the mountain, and a lot of wells were drilled to study the geology and hydrology of the site. Almost $11 billion was spent to follow the law passed in 1982, and amended in 1987, to bring the project into reality.
In 2002, Yucca Mountain was found by the Secretary of Energy to be suitable for the National Repository. Nevada objected, as allowed by law, and that objection was subsequently overturned by Congress.
That is when the real political games started.
From the start of this project, there have been games on both sides. Some believe the 1987 amendments were nothing more than a “Screw Nevada Bill.” And so, in typical political fashion, Nevada created Bullfrog County to ensure that any benefits accrued to the state and not the citizens affected by the repository. It roughly outlined the project site, and there were no people living within its boundaries. Three people who didn’t even live in a neighboring county were appointed to the Board of the Bullfrog County Commission.
Fast forward to 2008. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid made a deal with newly elected President Barack Obama to defund the project entirely, even though the license application was already beginning to make its way through the process. The Department of Energy, under the direction of President Obama, attempted to withdraw the license application from the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Their statement as to why was, “It is unworkable.” They didn’t say, even though pressured to do so, “It is not safe,” as none of their scientists would stand behind such a misstatement.
The state of Nevada has continued with its constant lawsuits and challenges — and has been overruled at every point. Federal courts have ruled that the state’s rights issue is no issue at all, as the government has every right to do what it wants on federal lands, including storing commercial nuclear waste, and that as such, Yucca was in no way an infringement of the state’s rights. It has become clear, though, that current Attorney General Adam Laxalt will again try to bring the state’s rights argument back to the forefront.
After spending more than $50 million on lawsuits since 2002, maybe it is time for the state of Nevada to finally let the law play out, and most importantly, hear what the science says about Yucca Mountain. The national labs, scientists of the same caliber as the guys that built an interstellar space craft in five years, all agreed that the science is sound. The staff at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission also believe the science is sound, so now all we have left is for the Commission to conduct the meetings and hear all of the evidence that has been collected over 30 years, for which taxpayers have paid nearly $11 billion.
Many times during the flight of the Voyager missions, critics thought catastrophe was going to strike. But the NASA scientists believed in their mission and stayed with it all these years. In August of 2012, they got to see their creation pass out of our solar system and into the vast reaches of interstellar space.
All of those teams that worked on the Yucca Mountain project and gave their careers to it, for the most part, are still around answering the same questions they answered 25 years ago.
While I am enjoying the historic 40th anniversary of the Voyager mission, I am also considering the national security mission to store and possibly reprocess spent fuel rods as our legal and moral duty. Five years to launch an interstellar spacecraft. Thirty-five years… and still just talking about building a nuclear waste repository.
To all those brave men and women who undertook both of these engineering tasks, I, along with millions of Americans, thank you.
To the political leaders who have done nothing but stand in the way instead of dealing with this important national security issue, it is past time to do your job. Allow the law you passed to be followed so that we, as a nation, can once again believe that when the government makes a promise and passes a law, they do mean to follow it.
Dan Schinhofen is the Chairman of the Board of Nye County Commissioners.