EDITORIAL: Washington, make an offer on Yucca Mountain

Hey, Washington, make us an offer we can’t refuse.

If the government is serious about crafting a new national nuclear waste solution that involves asking states to accept and store dangerous military and commercial radioactive material, the least it can do is deliver a pitch to the state it tried to force the waste upon all those years ago.

Obviously, Washington has learned some lessons from the Yucca Mountain Project, the boondoggle to end all boondoggles, one of the most cynical exercises in political power the country has ever seen. About three decades ago, what was supposed to be an objective, scientific exercise in selecting a permanent storage site for the country’s high-level nuclear waste became a rigged game. Congress amended the Nuclear Waste Policy Act in 1987 to make Yucca Mountain, a ridge inside the Nevada Test Site about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, the only site under study for the dump. Nevada had no political clout, so the rest of the country ganged up, scratched other potential locations from the list and said, “You’ll take our waste — and like it.” The legislation became known as the “Screw Nevada bill.”

So we did what any proud people would do. We said, “Screw you.”

Today, after some $10 billion was spent — ahem — “studying” the mountain’s suitability and drilling a five-mile tunnel through it, the Yucca Mountain Project is dead. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid dedicated his career to killing it, and President Barack Obama delivered the coup de grace in 2010 when he terminated the program.

Nuclear waste remains stored at sites across the country, some above shallow aquifers, some in population centers. Yucca Mountain was supposed to accept its first waste shipment in 1998. American electricity customers have paid more than $35 billion into a fund to pay for the construction of a permanent repository.

Washington never crafted a backup plan, never changed its strategy. It was Nevada or nothing. Nothing won.

The federal government finally is ready to reboot its nuclear waste policy. As reported Wednesday by the Review-Journal’s Steve Tetreault, the Obama administration wants to develop separate repositories for waste produced at nuclear power plants and for military waste. In a speech to the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington think tank, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said the administration would seek states to serve as temporary storage sites, which would hold the waste until permanent facilities could be built in states willing to have them.

“What we want to do now is move this process forward for this consent-based interaction with communities and states to get our storage program going,” he said.

Wow. Imagine if the U.S. Department of Energy had taken a similar approach 30 years ago. We wouldn’t need to have this conversation today.

Speaking of conversations, in a March 22 op-ed for the Review-Journal, freshman Rep. Cresent Hardy, R-Nev., called for the state to have a nuclear waste dialogue. Nevadans have never really had that conversation because the state’s elected leaders, Republicans and Democrats, have always been united in opposing any and all nuclear waste storage here. Rep. Hardy wants Nevadans to have an opportunity to provide their own answer — and he wants Washington to offer the state something in return besides bad faith and federal jobs.

“What if the answer were ‘maybe’?,” he wrote. “What if a permanent investment were made in Nevada schools — the kind of investment that could take us from the bottom 10 percent to the top 10 percent? What if Nevada were to receive a larger share of water rights from the Colorado River, or obtain greater leverage in our quest for better transportation and infrastructure funding across the state?”

That kind of offer might get Nevadans’ attention. Already, some federal lawmakers are angling to revive the Yucca Mountain Project as part of a new nuclear waste policy. In October, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission released a report that declared the site suitable for nuclear waste storage.

If we’re going to have a conversation about nuclear waste storage, it should start with honesty — from both sides.

First, Nevada leaders can stop the alarmism. Decades of politically expedient doomsday predictions have served no productive purpose and instead risked becoming self-fulfilling prophecies. Nuclear waste is not a hypothetical material. It not only exists, it’s being stored safely in all kinds of environments. And Nevada’s nuclear proving grounds are isolated, unfit for productive use and secure.

Then federal officials can stop pretending that science has any meaningful role in determining whether a site is suitable for nuclear waste storage. This is a political calculation, and nothing more.

Maybe both sides can agree that entombing nuclear waste inside a mountain is one of the dumbest ideas the country has ever conceived. Why lock up the stuff when having access to it creates opportunities for reprocessing and research? Besides, even if the Yucca Mountain repository were to open, it’s far too small to house the country’s waste. More facilities would need to be built regardless.

So make us an offer we can’t refuse, Washington. Everyone has a price. No one knows that more than members of Congress. Just remember to say, “Pretty please.”

We can always say no.