Most of last jobs at Yucca Mountain project expire next month

Sources close to the beleaguered Yucca Mountain nuclear waste project said Tuesday that jobs will expire in September for the last two dozen workers who transferred to another Department of Energy program amid hundreds of layoffs in 2010.

That would leave only 20 former Yucca Mountain Project workers - 15 at the Energy Department's North Las Vegas facility and five in the Washington, D.C., area - working on nuclear waste site options other than the mountain, 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, said one source who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

"There was a small group who got positions for two years," the source said, referring to former Yucca Mountain Project workers who took jobs working on grant awards for the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which President Barack Obama signed in 2009.

Calls to the group's supervisor at DOE's North Las Vegas offices weren't returned Tuesday.

The once-bustling multibillion-dollar effort to study and build a repository at Yucca Mountain for the nation's highly radioactive defense wastes and used fuel from commercial power reactors came to a halt in 2010 when the project's budget was zeroed out at the urging of Nevada's delegation and Energy Secretary Steven Chu suspended the effort to license the repository.

About 625 federal and contract workers in Las Vegas and Washington, D.C., lost their jobs, retired or accepted other government positions.

Project officials had seen federal and contractor employee numbers climb to 2,750 in 2005, the peak year for the nuclear waste program. Budget cutbacks that paralleled the nation's economic downturn reduced the numbers to 1,400 in March 2009. One month later, the number of employees dipped to 800 and continued to fall to 625 in 2010 before the last layoffs occurred.

News of jobs expiring next month for two dozen former Yucca Mountain Project workers who transferred in 2010 with two-year extensions was mentioned in private conversations with former project workers during Tuesday's meeting at the Sawyer Building of the state Legislative Committee on High-Level Radioactive Waste.

During the meeting, former Gov. and Sen. Richard Bryan, who is chairman of Nevada's Commission on Nuclear Projects and a longtime foe of the Yucca Mountain Project, stopped short of declaring victory in the state's fight to keep DOE from entombing 77,000 tons of highly radioactive waste in the volcanic-rock ridge.

"After 30 years I think we're on the cusp of victory," Bryan told the committee, chaired by state Sen. David Parks, D-Las Vegas.

"The concern that we have is the health and safety of Nevada," Bryan said.

He noted flaws with the Department of Energy selecting the Yucca Mountain site, where state scientists have warned of potential dangers from earthquake faults, volcanic activity and surface water infiltrating a maze of storage tunnels through porous rock. Should protective titanium drip shields fail and metal waste containers corrode, releasing deadly radioactive materials, the state's groundwater would be jeopardized.

"No other place in the world is there proposed to have a high-level nuclear waste site that is above the water table, in which the temperatures are intense, and we're relying upon the predictability of complex engineering to protect the site and contain that nuclear waste," Bryan said.

Robert Halstead, executive director of the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects, said his office is braced for a change in the political climate that would put DOE or perhaps another agency on track to revisit Yucca Mountain for disposing nuclear waste.

"Nevada continues to prepare for restart of the licensing process," he said, referring to about 200 legal challenges the state has with the site's safety and repository design.

Those concerns are in addition to problems he sees with transporting the spent fuel assemblies to Yucca Mountain by truck and rail, not the least of which is the potential for sabotage and terrorism.

Roughly 220,000 residents in the Las Vegas Valley live within a half mile on each side of rail and truck routes, Halstead noted.

Nine out of 10 speakers during the public comment periods spoke against putting nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain or establishing reprocessing facilities near the site.

Mike Baughman, a consultant to Lincoln County, said the state shouldn't lose sight of the potential for receiving federal funds to oversee the project, should it revive.

"If you're watching Congress, if you're watching the courts, the Yucca Mountain Project is not dead," he said. "We just can't pretend it's not there."

Contact reporter Keith Rogers at or 702-383-0308.