WASHINGTON -- Besides preserving desert valleys and buffering a massive piece of modern sculpture, a new federal conservation area in rural Nevada carries another impact: It blocks a priority shipping route to Yucca Mountain.
The Basin and Range National Monument created by President Obama on Friday restricts development in Garden Valley, where the Department of Energy once planned to build a railroad line to carry nuclear waste across the state to a repository on the western edge of the Nevada National Security Site.
The Yucca Mountain Project has been mothballed for the past five years, and Sen. Harry Reid said Monday that it was not the main reason he pressed Obama to withdraw 704,000 acres -- 1,100 square miles -- from development.
Still, some officials said closing off the rail corridor will make it much more difficult for the project to be resurrected, adding years and unspecified costs to a Yucca comeback advocated by supporters in Congress.
"It's a significant impediment to Yucca Mountain moving forward with a rail line as previously defined," said former DOE official Timothy Frazier, now senior adviser to the Bipartisan Policy Center. "Now they're going to have to find another rail route. To me it's delay upon delay to do that."
The Department of Energy was eyeing a $2 billion price tag to build an ambitious 319-mile rail line from the Lincoln County town of Caliente in eastern Nevada to the Yucca site. Frazier said there will be increased costs to change direction and update environmental documents to reflect a new choice.
"All of these things to my mind add complexity and additional costs and additional time," Frazier said. "I've got to agree, I think this is yet another nail in the coffin of Yucca Mountain."
"Bottom line, two to three years for them to figure out what they do next," said Bob Halstead, director of the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects.
The Caliente corridor "was a bad option to begin with," Halstead said. "Transportation has always been the Achilles heel of Yucca Mountain."
But Gary Lanthrum, who served as chief transportation official on the Yucca Mountain project, said the pivot away from the Caliente corridor may not be that complex.
Lanthrum, now a nuclear industry consultant, said the Department of Energy had performed detailed studies on a Plan B along Union Pacific Railroad track south from Winnemucca, crossing east of Fallon and through the Walker River Indian Reservation in Hawthorne.
From there, the rail line would have been built along an abandoned Southern Pacific Railroad bed to near Mina in Mineral County and then south through or near Tonopah and Goldfield to the Yucca site 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
At 209 miles, the so-called Mina corridor was shorter than the Caliente corridor, but the Walker River tribe withdrew interest under pressure from Reid.
At the same time, officials in Lincoln County were all-in, anticipating an economic boost from a rail spur in Caliente.
"Given a change in politics, that (Mina) line might be a viable option again," Lanthrum said in a reference to Obama and Reid leaving office next year. "That would be much shorter and cheaper to build than the Caliente corridor."
"Even though a lot of years have passed, things in that part of the country haven’t changed significantly," Lanthrum said. "I'm not convinced it would be a hugely significant effort to revisit the analysis. You are talking about probably a year or less."
In an interview on KNPR on Monday, Reid said Yucca Mountain "did not enter into my calculations at all" in arranging for preservation of what the White House called "one of the undisturbed corners of the broader Great Basin region."
Additionally, the national monument area is touted as a scenic buffer to "City," a complex of massive earthen sculptures by world renowned landscape artist Michael Heizer over an area the size of the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
As he repeats often, Reid said the Yucca Mountain project is already dead in his view.
"Listen, that was never going to be built anyway," he told the Las Vegas public radio station. "That's ridiculous. It was not going to happen, first of all. It's all just 'weirdness.'"
Contact Review-Journal Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-783-1760. Find him on Twitter: @STetreaultDC.