Photo By NUCLEAR REGULATORY COMMISSION The once-busy, never completed Yucca Mountain facility is now mostly dormant, a victim of funding cuts and policy changes.

In August, Nevada Assemblymember Pat Hickey coauthored an essay that ran in the Unification Church newspaper in the nation’s capital, the Washington Times. The essay called for Nevada’s Yucca Mountain to become a dump for high-level nuclear wastes.

Hickey is a Republican, one of several elected officials who have been edging closer to all-out support of storing high level nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain in Nevada’s Nye County.

For years, the state kept a relatively unified front of opposition to allowing the lethal waste into the state. The ascendancy of U.S. Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada has virtually halted progress on the project, and that gives Republicans more freedom of action to talk about previously unthinkable possibilities without actually subjecting the state to risk.

This is happening at the same time that GOP presidential candidates Ron Paul, Rick Perry and Mitt Romney have endorsed Nevada’s opposition to the dump.

In the U.S. Senate race in 2010, Republicans Danny Tarkanian, Sue Lowden and Sharron Angle all took vaguely pro-waste dump positions (“GOP candidates: Bring waste to Nevada,” RN&R, March 11, 2010) and all their candidacies failed in the campaign. Some campaign consultants, while granting that many, many other factors were involved, thought that was a warning that deserved some attention, but it was little noticed.

Some new Republican stances on Yucca are nuanced, often involving reprocessing of waste. U.S. Rep. Joe Heck of Clark County and his newly elected colleague Mark Amodei—whose district includes the mountain—are both taking this route.

During his successful campaign to unseat Democrat Dina Titus in 2010, Heck talked about reprocessing. In July, he filed an amendment that sought to divert funding for the Yucca Mountain project to nuclear waste reprocessing. It did not specify that any reprocessing be done at Yucca, but some nuclear experts consider that the implication of the amendment. Heck’s approach, if used at Yucca Mountain, would not change much. If reprocessing was done at Yucca, the same waste the state is trying to keep out would just be brought to Nevada for reprocessing—and likely would produce still more waste. (Heck’s amendment was ruled out of order.)

Last week John Oceguera, Heck’s likely opponent in next year’s election, issued a statement that read in part, “I want to send a clear message to Joe Heck: Nevadans cannot afford dangerous radioactive waste in their backyards.”

In an interview with the Las Vegas Sun editorial board during his run for the northern House seat in August, Amodei supported Heck’s approach, but stopped short of calling for reprocessing at Yucca.

“Why can’t we do the R and D [research and development] for reprocessing here?” Amodei asked. “Why can’t we do a best practices center here? Why can’t we do nuclear safety here? I think there are opportunities to make that something other than a nuclear landfill.”

Amodei also argues that Nevada cannot turn down the waste dump and then turn around and seek other, less hazardous projects for the state.

“If you fund it at zero, then you’re put in the position of going back and saying in these economic times of budgeting, ‘Oh, by the way, now that we asked you to zero it out, we’d like you to fund other stuff.’ I just think it’s a heavier lift,” he said.

That assertion is sharply disputed by Democrats and some Republicans, who say the state should not be forced to endanger its populace to qualify for safer federal projects.

Neither Heck or Amodei volunteers an explanation for how all this would be paid for—reprocessing is extremely expensive. Moreover, both Heck and Amodei finesse the fact that the result would be the same: The waste that would go to Yucca Mountain would be the same waste the state is trying to keep out.

“It really is the very same high-level nuclear waste!” Pacific Northwest nuclear activist Gerry Pollet said in an email message to the RN&R in 2010, when Tarkanian, Lowden and Angle were promoting alternatives for Yucca. “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.”

In addition, it’s not like reprocessing gets rid of the waste problem. In fact, some scientists say reprocessing produces more waste than existed before the reprocessing—which would increase, not reduce, the pressure for using Nevada as a dump.

“The interest in reprocessing is partly based on false claims by the reprocessing industry that the technology simplifies the nuclear waste disposal problem by reducing the hazard and volume of waste,” according to a Union of Concerned Scientists Report. “For instance, the French company AREVA, which reprocesses French spent nuclear fuel, claims that reprocessing ‘reduces the volume of waste by a factor of at least four.’ This statement is contradicted by recent data from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), which show that reprocessing greatly increases the total volume of radioactive waste, compared to direct disposal of spent fuel.”

Finally, reprocessing would require a change in federal law and in national nuclear policy that has existed for 34 years. President Carter banned reprocessing of commercial reactor spent nuclear fuel on April 7, 1977, because of nuclear proliferation and terrorism concerns. Heck or Amodei have not proposed legislation to change that.

Betting on the come

Hickey and his coauthor, Ty Cobb, come closer to a flat statement of support for using Yucca Mountain as a dump for nuclear waste. They noted that the Obama administration has changed the plan to make Yucca a dump for thousands of years. Instead, the time frame has changed to 100 to 120 years. With that change, Hickey and Cobb wrote, the nation should simply use Yucca as a dump and count on science and technology coming up with a better solution in the next century.

“The supposition now is that a scientific breakthrough will be found in that time frame that would enable us to neutralize the nuclear waste,” they wrote. “We agree that interim storage is the proper choice, and we concur that science will certainly lead to a solution for waste disposal in a relatively short period of time. The only question is why not store the material at Yucca for this short period and provide some economic compensation for the state of Nevada?”

Critics of the Yucca dump note that its supporters often tout reprocessing as a panacea and frequently point to France’s reprocessing program as an ideal. But they say that the French program is troubled—Germany pulled out of it a decade ago and France itself is trying to build a Yucca Mountain-style dump, which suggests that reprocessing would do nothing to shield Nevada from becoming a dump site.

“Nuclear power has some information that has mythology to it,” Nuclear Regulatory Commission chair Gregory Jaczko said in Phoenix in 2010. “One of the best developed myths out there is that France has solved the waste problem. France has not solved the waste problem.”

According to Scientific American, “In 2000, France considered the option of ending reprocessing in 2010 and concluded that doing so would reduce the cost of nuclear electricity.”

One Nevada Republican not joining the pro-dump group is U.S. Sen. Dean Heller. This week Heller issued a statement reinforcing his opposition: “Yucca Mountain is a threat to public safety. No amount of reassurance from the federal government will convince me or the residents of Nevada otherwise.” He introduced an amendment to block new funding to open the dump.

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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...