Nuclear waste panel invited to Nevada

WASHINGTON -- A nuclear waste blue ribbon commission was invited Friday to hold a field hearing in Nevada to review lessons learned from the teetering Yucca Mountain repository plan.

Invitations were extended by representatives of Nye and Clark counties as the commission began forming a work plan for its two-year study of how used nuclear fuel might be managed, stored and ultimately prepared for disposal.

At their second public meeting, commissioners said one key part of their work will be to determine whether or how people accept technology that involves highly radioactive and potentially deadly substances.

Officials from Nevada offered themselves as authorities on the topic by virtue of the state's experience with the Yucca Mountain Project over more than two decades.

"The state of Nevada has had a love-hate relationship with the Department of Energy for many years, as most of you know," said Bruce Breslow, executive director of the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects.

Breslow said that making a nuclear project politically acceptable to a host "is half the battle. You can have the greatest scientific minds in the world but you have to be able to sell it in the end."

The project envisioned building an industrial site and underground tunnel complex 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas where high-level radioactive waste would be shipped, put in temporary storage and then placed in the mountain.

Despite efforts at outreach, the government was not able to generate a mass of public support for the repository that the Obama administration now is moving to terminate.

While some blame Department of Energy bureaucratic clumsiness, many also blame the process by which Nevada in 1987 was singled out for the controversial project by more powerful states in Congress. Nevada leaders never forgot, and it became a rallying point for opponents of the plan.

Joseph Ziegler, a consultant to Nye County, told commissioners that Nevada counties want to make available their expertise from years of monitoring the project.

"We believe sharing our collective years of experience particularly in oversight of Yucca Mountain ... will assist the commission," he said.

Irene Navis, Clark County manager of nuclear waste planning, said the county has done a number of studies "in the areas of safety, security, critical infrastructure protection, transportation as well as community perception issues."

Navis said President Barack Obama "says it is great to travel to Las Vegas, and I invite you out there."

Commission Co-Chairman Lee Hamilton said the panel probably will draw on the Yucca Mountain experience, although he did not say whether a field trip would be on the schedule.

"I think there are values to be learned from our experiences, not just at Yucca but at other places in the country that will be helpful to us," Hamilton said after the meeting. "We are quite prepared to learn the lessons from those experiences."

Co-Chairman Brent Scowcroft said the panel will not get involved in whether Yucca Mountain is or was ever a good site for waste disposal, after it was told by Energy Secretary Steven Chu that Obama has no interest in that location.

"Our charter is a broad charter but it does not include site locations," he said.

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., who persuaded Obama to kill the repository, would welcome a field hearing in the state if it is limited to learning about Nevada's experiences with the government, an aide said.

"There is nothing to learn from the Yucca Mountain site itself since it is not on the table," the aide said.

Likewise, Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., believes a field hearing would be a "good opportunity to remind Americans that Yucca was selected for political reasons over the strong opposition of Southern Nevada residents," said David Cherry, her communications director.

"What the congresswoman would not want to see would be an attempt by Yucca backers to convince the commission that Nevadans approve of Yucca Mountain, when the truth is that a majority of our state remains absolutely opposed," Cherry said.

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at or 202-783-1760.