Nuclear waste politics


It’s impossible to have a rational conversation about nuclear waste in Nevada. In fact, it’s impossible to have any kind of conversation about nuclear waste in Nevada.

When our elected officials aren’t spreading fears of environmental or public health disasters, they have their fingers in their ears. Opposition to nuclear waste is mandatory for inclusion in Nevada’s political establishment, thanks to the “Screw Nevada” politics of a quarter-century ago. That’s when Congress changed what was supposed to be a broader study of potential nuclear waste repository sites into a rigged game that singled out Yucca Mountain, 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, as the country’s dumping ground.

Since then, the Department of Energy has spent $15 billion developing the site, occasionally moving the goalposts to keep the approval process rolling along. And Nevada officials, led by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, have used tools at their disposal to stop the repository. Today, the site is mothballed, cut off from funding by Sen. Reid and President Barack Obama, but very much alive under existing law.

Last week, a federal appellate court ordered the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to resume the licensing of the Yucca Mountain Project, which could lead to a finding that the site is safe and suitable for nuclear waste storage — something favored by a majority of members of Congress.

Meanwhile, the Energy Department and state officials are tangling over the disposal of low-level nuclear waste at the Nevada National Security Site, even though similar materials have been buried there for decades, to say nothing of the places forever contaminated by nuclear weapons testing. Again, Nevada leaders are warning of doomsday.

Because we keep playing that card, what happens if the waste finally comes? Do we pack up and run? Do we sound the alarm that Southern Nevada no longer is safe for anyone? Or do our elected leaders admit they were pandering for votes all along, and that their warnings were exaggerated?

The risk of continuing such brinkmanship is that nuclear waste storage becomes a zero-sum game, and that Nevada officials will never have a remotely constructive relationship with the Department of Energy. It would be far better to try to have a conversation — one that includes Nevadans and their evolving opinions on nuclear waste storage.

 

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