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Nevada, Nye County take opposite sides in Yucca Mountain battle

Updated September 6, 2017 - 9:27 pm

Nevada is prepared to continue its all-out war against the Yucca Mountain Project, while the county that would host the proposed nuclear waste repository plans to keep pushing for the licensing process to resume.

The two key players in the decades-old fight over the project staked out familiar positions Wednesday at a radioactive waste conference in Las Vegas.

“We’re letting politics rule the day,” said Nye County Commission Chairman Dan Schinhofen, a proponent of the plan to bury high-level waste inside the mountain. “Let’s hear the science.”

But Robert Halstead, head of Nevada’s Agency for Nuclear Projects, said the state intends to challenge the repository at every stage — before, during and, if necessary, after any licensing review.

“It’s not just people ripping each other to pieces for the purpose of ripping each other to pieces. There are real scientific and engineering issues involved,” Halstead said.

Wednesday’s panel discussion, Yucca Mountain Restart, came as the Trump administration is pushing Congress to fund again the repository licensing process, which began in 2008 but stalled during the Obama administration.

House Republicans are moving forward with a bill authorizing $120 million for the Department of Energy and $30 million for Nuclear Regulatory Commission to start the process. The Senate did not include repository funding in its appropriations bill, setting up a confrontation in conference.

‘Matter of national security’

If licensing resumes, Halstead said the state plans to “fully adjudicate” about 250 separate challenges to the Energy Department’s license application for Yucca Mountain and the data underpinning it. Despite decades of research costing billions of dollars, DOE has not sufficiently demonstrated that it can safely transport and contain as much as 110,000 metric tons of highly radioactive waste without contaminating groundwater and endangering residents in the region, he said.

But Schinhofen said the federal government has a “moral and legal obligation” to dispose of the nation’s spent nuclear fuel and other highly radioactive waste, which is being stored at nuclear power plants and other reactor sites across the country. Developing a repository inside Yucca Mountain, 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, is “a matter of national security,” he said.

“If it’s not proven safe, we’ll join them (the state) in saying no,” Schinhofen said.

But he made it clear that he doesn’t expect that outcome.

“All of the evidence vetted to date shows Yucca Mountain can be done safely,” Schinhofen said, and Nye County wants the highly skilled jobs, infrastructure improvements and other economic benefits that will come with it.

“It’s a multigenerational, multibillion-dollar project,” he said.

Politics over science

Schinhofen and Halstead also sparred over how Yucca Mountain is viewed by the public in Nevada.

Halstead said political opposition to the project is stronger than ever while public opinion is largely unchanged, with around 75 percent of Nevadans opposed to plans to transport and store the nation’s high-level waste in the state.

But Schinhofen said that while the media liks to paint him as the lone voice in favor of Yucca Mountain, Nye is actually one of nine rural counties that have passed resolutions calling for the licensing to resume and the science to be heard.

The two men did agree on one point: Both said politics have trumped science in the debate over nuclear waste disposal, albeit at different times and in different ways.

Schinhofen said that by blocking the NRC’s license review, the state is “relying on political science over nuclear science.”

But Halstead responded that it was “political science not earth science” that prompted Congress to designate Yucca Mountain as the sole repository site in 1987, a decision that left a deep mistrust that still lingers in Nevada.

“Why do we want to participate in something we believe is unfair?” Halstead said.

Wednesday’s debate at the annual RadWaste Summit, a conference of government and industry experts, was one that many of the people in the room had heard before.

As one convention-goer grumbled after leaving the banquet hall: “They’ve been having this discussion for 35 years.”

Contact Henry Brean at hbrean@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0350. Follow @RefriedBrean on Twitter.

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