The Yucca Mountain project is being treated as all but dead, but some Nevada political figures could breathe new life into it.

Pacific Northwest activist Gerry Pollet could not believe his eyes.

Pollet, who monitors the cleanup at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation on the Columbia River in Washington and has sometimes made common cause with Nevada anti-Yucca Mountain dump activists, found a Las Vegas Review-Journal story on the web about Nevada candidates calling for bringing waste to Yucca Mountain just as the state seemed on the verge of winning its long running battle against the dump there.

“Several Republican candidates—including leading U.S. Senate candidates Danny Tarkanian, Sue Lowden and Sharron Angle—have expressed support for studying or experimenting with reprocessing, a method of extracting useful fuel from radioactive waste,” the newspaper reported. “Two Republican gubernatorial candidates are also open to the idea, despite steadfast opposition from the Nevada political establishment that stymied the plan to store waste at Yucca Mountain.”

For a quarter of a century, Nevada has been fighting to keep the mountain in Nye County from becoming a dump for high level wastes, mainly from power plants.

“I wouldn’t have predicted that statewide candidates in Nevada would be calling for sending the same high-level waste to Yucca Mountain that the state just defeated,” Pollet said. “That’s the danger of candidates or incumbents listening to industry or political ideologues from outside Nevada.”

Is it the same waste? Pollet says the end goal—reprocessing instead of storage—may be different, but the waste that would be brought to Nevada is exactly the same stuff Nevada has been trying to keep out.

“It really is the very same high-level nuclear waste!” he said in an email message. “The reprocessing proposal is to reprocess the fuel rods from reactors, melting them down to extract Pu [plutonium] and U [uranium], rather than simply burying the fuel rods in a deep geologic repository.”

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Tarkanian has the most clearly spelled-out view on bringing nuclear waste to Nevada.

“Reprocessing plants have been utilized all around the world and have excellent safety track records,” he wrote in a position paper on his website. “Yet I find it bizarre that, as one of the leading nuclear energy producers in the world, the U.S. does not have a single reprocessing site. The [Nye County] location is ideal and the transition process could be started easily, the result being a new industry that Nevada can take a lead in. Turning Yucca Mountain into a nuclear reprocessing facility will create thousands of jobs for Nevadans, generate hundreds of millions of dollars of much needed revenue for the State, and turn UNLV and Nevada into the leading research institutions in this field in the world.”

Tarkanian’s position paper, posted on his own site, was later picked up and posted on the Carbon Capture Report, a nuclear power industry site.

GOP primary frontrunner Sue Lowden is open to the idea of reprocessing. In the Review-Journal story, reporter Benjamin Spillman quoted her saying, “I think we could explore reprocessing.”

Republican Senate candidate Sharron Angle takes a similar stance. Republican candidate for governor Mike Montandon supports bringing waste to Nevada for reprocessing. His opponents Jim Gibbons and Brian Sandoval have not committed themselves.

U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, a Democrat seeking reelection, said he supports new uses for the Yucca site “other than nuclear waste.”

Democratic candidate for governor Rory Reid opposes bringing waste to Nevada for either storage or reprocessing.

Physicist Edwin Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists said bringing nuclear waste to Nevada for reprocessing would be even more dangerous than bringing it for storage.

“Reprocessing spent fuel is extraordinarily expensive, and it greatly increases the risk of a significant radiological incident that could contaminate large areas.” he said. “Spent fuel, after all, is a mostly solid material. Reprocessing requires puncturing the fuel cladding, which releases radioactive gases like krypton-85, and requires the fuel to be dissolved in acid, creating large volumes of highly radioactive liquid wastes that must be stabilized. … This is a much more dangerous activity than simply storing and burying spent fuel.”

He added that the reprocessing itself would create waste products, which would just create pressure to reopen the Yucca dump project.

“But perhaps the biggest reason why Nevada should not welcome a reprocessing plant is simply because there is nowhere for the waste to go,” he said. “The plant would act like a magnet for all the spent fuel around the country, just like Yucca Mountain would have. But reprocessing doesn’t make nuclear waste disappear—it just converts it to different forms. Nevada would be saddled not only with the high-level waste left over from reprocessing—as Washington state and South Carolina now are stuck with defense nuclear wastes—but also large volumes of low-level waste and plutonium-contaminated waste.”

In the 1980s, Nevada succeeded in closing one of the nation’s three low-level nuclear waste dumps, at Beatty.

Reprocessing would also increase the amount of transport of nuclear waste, which Nevada has portrayed as one of the dangers of the Yucca dump project.

At an energy and environment conference in Phoenix on Feb. 1, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission chair Gregory Jaczko was asked why the United States didn’t reprocess its waste like France. He called this a public policy myth.

“Nuclear power has some information that has mythology to it,” Jaczko he said. “One of the best developed myths out there is that France has solved the waste problem. France has not solved the waste problem.”

If they have, he asked, why is France—like the United States—trying to solve its waste problem by looking for a Yucca Mountain-style site? He said France reuses its fuel once, but then must find a way to dispose of it. And France generates about half the waste the U.S. generates.

What none of the Nevada candidates who support reprocessing have addressed is what purpose, other than creating jobs, would be served by reprocessing in view of its expense and the threat of weapons proliferation, which is why the U.S. stopped reprocessing in the first place.

Reprocessing was ended by President Carter on April 7, 1977. He said he took the step to reduce the spread of nuclear weapons.

“The U.S. is deeply concerned about the consequences for all nations of a further spread of nuclear weapons or explosive capabilities,” Carter said. “We believe that these risks would be vastly increased by the further spread of sensitive technologies which entail direct access to plutonium, highly enriched uranium, or other weapons usable material. The question I have had under review from my first day in office is how can that be accomplished without forgoing the tangible benefits of nuclear power.”

Carter said commercial reprocessing and recycling of plutonium produced by power plants was included in his order.

Reprocessing would also drive the cost of electricity to very high levels. In July 12, 2005, congressional testimony, Harvard and University of Maryland physicist Steve Fetter said, “There is widespread agreement, in the United States and abroad, that reprocessing currently is significantly more expensive than direct disposal. This is because reprocessing itself is an expensive process, and also because the MOX fuel produced using the recovered plutonium is more expensive, at current uranium prices, than the low-enriched uranium that is normally used to fuel reactors. Last year, operators of U.S. nuclear reactors on average paid $33 per kilogram for uranium. At this uranium price, reprocessing would have to cost less than $400 per kilogram of spent fuel in order to be competitive with direct disposal. For comparison, we estimate that reprocessing in a new U.S. facility, similar to those in the United Kingdom and France, would cost over $2,000 per kilogram.”

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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...