As ever, the outrage was the easy part.
When it comes to generating concern over anything associated with radioactive waste in Nevada, the state’s top Democrats are as vocal as they are predictable.
It’s something that has set them apart from the state’s Forever Trump Republicans. It’s something that sometimes lapses into a dizzying elixir that blends environmental concern, state’s rights principles, and political demagoguery.
But that loud rhetoric is more important than ever in the time of Trump.
There’s little question the current administration is working to gin up legal arguments for shipping radioactive waste and restarting the mothballed Yucca Mountain Project. To further its goal, it needs as many noses under the tent as it can get. The November 2018 shipment of a half metric ton of weapons-grade plutonium from South Carolina to Nevada without our state’s consent provides a recent reminder that vocal vigilance never goes out of style when it comes to dealing with the U.S. Department of Energy and National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).
First reported by national defense journalist Dan Leone, the shipment is a sign the federal government is increasingly desperate to start turning the rusty wheels and start transferring radioactive waste. And it’s not above a little legal sleight-of-hand to achieve its goal.
Knowing Nevada’s position on the issue, and its intent to litigate, the NNSA still sent a plutonium shipment to the state under the pretext that a federal court in South Carolina had ordered the removal from that state.
Thrown into the breach on one of the most contentious and important issues in state history, rookie state Attorney General Aaron Ford and his office were swift to respond. Rebuffed initially at the U.S. District Court, on Thursday responded with a motion to prevent future shipments pending action by the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. There will surely be many more emergency motions to come.
Nevada’s congressional Democrats, newly minted Gov. Steve Sisolak, and Ford led the catcall chorus.
In addition to being “beyond outraged by this completely unacceptable deception from the U.S. Department of Energy,” in a recent statement Sisolak sounded as if he was shocked at being punked by the DOE. “The Department led the State of Nevada to believe that they were engaging in good-faith negotiations with us regarding a potential shipment of weapons-grade plutonium, only to reveal that those negotiations were a sham all along.”
Others echoed similar sentiments.
“Time and again, we have seen Trump Administration officials treat Nevada as the dumping ground for the nation’s nuclear waste,” Democratic Rep. Dina Titus offered, calling the plutonium shipment a “reckless decision, shrouded in secrecy.”
But of course no one on either side is really shocked.
The stakes are high, Nevada’s sovereignty has been treated like a doormat, and the Trump administration shows every sign of siding with the industry. But it’s important to remember that the stakes are high on both sides of the equation.
The South Carolina shipment isn’t the only legal brushfire Nevada needs to monitor. Far from it. Not with the costs of on-site storage skyrocketing and more nuclear power plants preparing to close.
In Western Massachusetts, the Yankee Rowe nuclear reactor has been decommissioned and dismantled for nearly three decades, but 16 canisters of highly radioactive waste contained in concrete cylinders remain there under guard. Calling the canisters “some of the most expensive dumpsters in the country, monuments to government in action,” the Boston Globe recently reported that successful lawsuits by the reactor’s owners shifted the cost of securing to taxpayers. The bill so far: $500 million with another $100 million likely.
We can argue that our sovereignty has been trampled, but other states aren’t likely to feel our pain. Stockpiles of radioactive waste from operating and decommissioned power plants have long posed an environmental risk and a security challenge. With nuclear waste stored at 121 sites in 35 states, versions of the Yankee Rowe story are repeated time and again. One DOE estimate notes $17 billion has already been spent in the name of establishing a permanent storage site. Approximately $7 billion of that has been spent in damages for the DOE failing to meet its two-decades-old goal of launching Yucca Mountain.
The original decision to ram the dump project down the throats of Nevadans continues to haunt the DOE and the nation to this day. Establishing regional storage sites would have been smarter, safer, far more politically palatable and legally defensible. But proponents were too arrogant for compromise.
From the look of things, the arrogance continues under DOE Secretary Rick Perry.
After so many years, it’s tempting to tune out the struggle and reduce the political rhetoric to white noise. Outrage is the easy part.
But for Nevadans concerned about the future of Yucca Mountain in the Trump era, sending a strong message is more important than ever.
John L. Smith is an author and longtime columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith