Photo By D. Brian Burghart The momentum of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump project has slowed to a crawl, forcing Congress to cast about for other storage solutions.

The story in a South Carolina newspaper is like many that have appeared in Nevada newspapers over the last quarter of a century: “Fearing South Carolina would become a dumping ground for tons of homeless nuclear waste, U.S. Rep. John Spratt won assurances this week that the federal government would not send the waste to the state without Congress’s permission.”

Around the nation, officials and lobbyists who have supported sending “homeless” nuclear waste to Nevada’s Yucca Mountain were jarred when the House of Representatives voted to start storing it in other states. South Carolina and Washington were immediately named as prime candidates, though there are others.

The House’s action came on a spending measure. With efforts to put a dump in Nevada bogged down in investigations and court cases, the House added language to the bill telling the Bush administration to start “temporarily” storing waste in other federal facilities. Heavily polluted nuclear facilities at Hanford, Wash., and Savannah, S.C., are likely prospects—which explains why the only votes against the measure came from 13 Washington and South Carolina congressmembers.

But others started circling the wagons, too. In Idaho, U.S. Rep. Clement “Butch” Otter, who voted for the bill, argued that a previous 1995 court order protected the state from having waste stored at a federal nuclear laboratory near Idaho Falls. But former Idaho Lt. Gov. David Leroy, who previously served as White House nuclear-waste director, told the Seattle Post Intelligencer, “There is a legislative history and policy agreements between the state and the Department of Energy which would discourage the use of Idaho for that purpose, but they don’t constitute an insurmountable barrier if Congress chooses to rewrite that history.”

He was describing a truth that has long since become familiar to Nevada officials—that members of Congress and federal officials shouldn’t be relied on when the influence of the nuclear-power lobby and the desire of members of Congress to shield their own states are at issue. In 1985, the federal reservation at Hanford was one of three sites selected for suitability studies for a dump for high-level nuclear wastes. The other two were Deaf Smith, Texas, and Yucca Mountain. But Texas enjoyed a vice president (the first George Bush) and a House majority leader (Jim Wright), and Washington had an influential lawmaker who would later become House speaker (Tom Foley). In 1987, Congress voted to short-circuit the scientific-suitability process by arbitrarily removing Deaf Smith and Hanford from the study, thus solely targeting Nevada for the dump. (The measure became known as the Screw Nevada Bill.)

Both Spratt of South Carolina and Otter of Idaho are relying on promises from federal officials or their colleagues in Congress to keep waste out of their states. Spratt and Otter both got promises from House Energy Committee Chairman David Hobson of Ohio that waste could not be stored in their states without further congressional action. But Leroy warned, “The history of one set of elected or appointed officials in any branch of U.S. government absolutely binding their successors in office to their agreements is not one I would depend on in this case.”

Uneasiness with the trustworthiness of Congress and federal energy officials is not the only consciousness raising previously experienced by Nevadans that officials in other states are now going through. Although the new legislation mentions “temporary storage,” state officials reacted much the way Nevada officials did when an “interim” dump was proposed for southern Nevada. “The problem with interim storage is that it is not built to last forever, yet interim could very well become permanent,” Spratt said. “When they say temporary, they could mean 30 or 40 years,” former South Carolina governor Jim Hodges told the Greenville News.

The prospect of new storage at Hanford also generated alarm in adjoining Oregon, whose biggest newspaper, the Oregonian, editorialized that the supposed comeback of nuclear energy is unlikely while storage issues are subject to such turbulence and slapdash solutions:

“The legislation leaves it up the Energy Department to select…sites, but everyone knows where this stuff is going: to already polluted sites such as Hanford and the Savannah River weapons facility in South Carolina. The Idaho National [Environmental and Engineering] Laboratory would be another likely site, except Idaho won a 1995 settlement that forbids the federal government from shipping spent fuel from commercial nuclear plants there. The United States desperately needs a safe and permanent storage facility. In spite of a recent scandal about falsified analysis, the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear-waste repository in Nevada remains the best alternative… But it’s not clear when—or even whether—Yucca will open as a permanent repository.”

Hanford was established in 1943 as part of the Manhattan Project after the federal government gave all residents of the towns of White Bluff and Hanford 28 days to leave. Plutonium was produced there for the atomic bomb, and the reservation was later used for numerous other nuclear activities, including storage of waste—even though the land is nearly encircled by the Columbia and Yakima rivers.

The Savannah site was established in 1951 for the manufacture of atom bomb components. The Savannah River runs along 20 miles of the southern border of the reservation. It is now being used for separation of plutonium used in space probes and reloading nuclear warheads. It has 86 subsites that contain 400 cleanup areas.

Over the weekend, another storage possibility emerged. The Boston Globe reported that the House Appropriations Committee “suggests that mothballed military bases be considered as potential sites for the waste.” That opens a whole array of states to becoming waste dumps, including those that actually generated the waste at power plants. Maine Yankee’s now-decommissioned plant still has stored waste, and when Maine Gov. John Balducci heard the waste could be stored at the state’s Portsmouth Naval Shipyard (now on the current base closing list), he said that '”to think that someone could put nuclear waste there … is outrageous.”

Support for the posture of those other states came from one surprising source—Nevada. State Nuclear Projects Agency chief Robert Loux said, “But as a practical matter, I think it’s a bad policy idea. I mean, the stuff can be and is being safely stored at reactor sites and can be for centuries. … That’s where the real problem is, is this multiple handling and transport steps. You’re just asking for accidents to happen.”

Loux also said it is possible to make too much of the House vote, because it is underfunded. “You know, it’s only 10 million bucks, and I don’t think anyone really believes you’re going to move any nuclear waste for $10 million.” The real value of the vote, he said, is “perceptual”—it helped get the word out about how troubled the Yucca project is.

Idaho’s Leroy said the same thing, that the congressional action is a recognition that the Yucca project has been badly wounded: “For the first time, you’ve got somebody truly admitting Yucca is not going to open ’til 2016 or later, saying every year it slips is another billion-dollar price tag and saying that interim storage at a government-run facility is essentially mandatory.”

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...