House members tour Nevada Yucca Mountain tunnel

YUCCA MOUNTAIN — For less than an hour Tuesday, Energy Department workers unlocked the building that guards the entrance to a five-mile tunnel to assist three congressmen in reviving a plan to turn this remote volcanic ridge into a tomb for the nation’s nuclear waste.

It cost $15,000 just to reopen it for Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., and two other members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee to grab flashlights and don protective boots, glasses, hard hats and respirators to hike about 30 yards inside the darkened tunnel.

The tour meant the government’s contractor had to check for radon and ensure the tunnel was safe to enter even for a short walk.

It was a “public education” tour to heighten awareness about “a national asset that we’re letting go to waste at a cost of $14.5 billion,” said Shimkus, the environment and economy subcommittee chairman.

Since funding dried up more than a year ago, the Yucca Mountain site, 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, has been off limits to visitors.

The rail line that hauled hundreds of scientists, engineers and support staff was closed by a chain link fence 40 yards outside the tunnel’s north portal.

Electricity for ventilation was shut off.

Even light bulbs were removed from the reception building where charts and safety gear and office equipment appeared to be frozen in time.

Inside the tunnel, owl feathers were scattered over rusty rails on the tunnel floor, evidence that the passageway that loops through the mountain had become home for a few wild critters in the absence of the hubbub of human activity.

Shimkus, whose state has the oldest nuclear power reactor and a sizeable fraction of the nation’s nuclear waste — “We have 11 nuclear reactors and six storage pools, one 40 miles from downtown Chicago” — tried to make a point that the idea for a repository at Yucca Mountain wasn’t dead despite the Obama administration’s stranglehold on funding for the unlicensed site.

“I’m pretty emotional about this, because I’ve been here before,” Shimkus said. “It’s a national asset that would be sad to let go to waste. Could you think of the jobs that would be back in Nevada?”

Back in Washington, D.C., Sen. Harry Reid, who led the push to kill the Yucca Mountain Project, called the tour a colossal waste of taxpayer money. He pointed out that the plan was riddled with problems, even after 24 years of study.

“Taxpayers have already spent too much money for too many years on a dangerous project that is not only too costly, but technically and scientifically unsound,” Reid said in a statement.

“As long as I am the majority leader of the United States Senate, this ill-conceived project will never see the light of day and we will never truck nuclear waste through Nevada’s neighborhoods. It’s time to move on and work together to find safer, more cost-effective solutions.”

In arranging the tour, Shimkus said the nation urgently needs a nuclear storage site and that there is no scientific or technical basis for shuttering Yucca Mountain.

By coincidence, the tour came on the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear accident in the former Soviet Union.

Both Rep. Gene Green, D-Texas and Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas, joined Shimkus and a dozen staff members and Energy Department officials on the tour.

They said their interest in putting the Yucca Mountain project back on track for funding and licensing was heightened by the recent nuclear crisis in Japan in the aftermath of a massive earthquake and tsunami that damaged reactor cores and spent fuel storage pools.

“Japan has convinced me that some type of long-term storage is necessary,” said Burgess, a physician. “I think Japan changed the equation. I’m bothered by the fact that we spent so much time and so much money and we’re not finding the answer.”

Burgess said he was “a little startled to see the lack of activity at such a low ebb when it’s so important.”

Both he and Green were making their first trip to the site.

Green agreed that the $14.5 billion in nuclear power ratepayer money, including a fraction in federal funds for disposing of highly radioactive defense waste, would be lost if Yucca Mountain is not built.

“There’s been a lot of money invested, so why are we starting over?” Green said. “Nevada opposed it, and elections mean something. Senator Reid and the delegation, they’re carrying out their commitments.”

At the urging of Reid, D-Nev., funding for the Yucca Mountain Project and the civilian radioactive waste office has dropped consistently since fiscal year 2004. That’s when employment peaked at 2,750 workers and funding was $580 million a year.

Funding was zeroed out this year, and President Barack Obama instructed Energy Secretary Steven Chu to field a blue ribbon panel to chart a new course for dealing with the nation’s nuclear waste that doesn’t include Yucca Mountain.

Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., criticized Shimkus for slamming the door in the faces of Nevada observers who requested to be on the taxpayer-supported tour but were denied.

State nuclear projects consultant Steve Frishman and Judy Treichel, executive director of the nonprofit Nuclear Waste Task Force, had requested access to the tour.

Treichel said the congressmen were only interested in hearing from a contingent in Nye County about plans for an energy park and reimbursement for Nevadans for hosting a repository site.

“It was a silly trip if they wanted to hear from a few Nevadans for a get-rich-quick scheme,” Treichel said.

In a statement, Berkley said, “Nevada’s future is in clean energy, not nuclear waste. We need to dump Yucca Mountain now and start securing fuel rods in hardened dry-cask storage containers kept at existing plant sites. On-site waste storage is safe for the next 100 years and will stop decades of danger from shipments of nuclear waste on America’s roads, rivers and railways.” 

Rep. Dean Heller, R-Nev., expressed similar concerns.

“The phrase ‘Yucca Mountain is dead’ apparently has not been repeated enough,” Heller said in a statement.

“The fact that Yucca Mountain is a threat to public safety should be enough to terminate this project, but given our nation’s dire financial situation it makes little sense to keep spending taxpayer dollars on this ill-conceived project.”  

Contact reporter Keith Rogers at krogers@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0308.

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