The Battle of Yucca Mountain

The perennial battle over Nevada’s Yucca Mountain, the rocky bluff 90 miles north of Las Vegas where federal officials plan to bury America’s nuclear waste, is heating up again. After failing to block the controversial plan through legislative channels, desperate state officials have cut off the site’s water supplies in a last-ditch attempt to parch the project out of existence.

The unconventional strategy - which denies federal workers access to Nevada groundwater for anything other than drinking and fire prevention - is designed to bring to a halt the water-lubricated drills being used by Energy Department researchers as they prepare to submit a key report to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. With a judge expected to rule on the case this week, the ban is unlikely to stay in place for long, but the clash brings to a head the state’s 30-year campaign to nix the proposed nuclear dump.

Despite Nevadans’ protests, Congress gave the Yucca Mountain project a definitive green light in 2002, cutting short a scientific review of other potential locations. Since then, ignoring studies suggesting that Yucca’s geology may be less stable than initially thought (a worrisome problem, given that the buried waste will remain dangerous for many thousands of years), the Department of Energy has pushed ahead with plans to open the facility by 2020.

While the administration has sought to brush off Nevadans’ qualms as NIMBYism, there are grounds for concern for those who live outside the Sagebrush State. Stockpiling nuclear detritus in a single location requires radioactive waste to be hauled for thousands of miles, creating unsettling bottlenecks in transit hubs like Chicago. Regular train accidents are bad enough; a nuclear wreck doesn’t bear thinking about.

Thankfully, opponents of the plan have an important ally: Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid, a vocal critic of the project during his stint on the environment committee. So far, Reid has helped slash almost three quarters of a billion dollars from the Yucca Mountain budget. This year, under his guidance, the Senate shaved another $50 million from the project’s funding. 

But Nevadans shouldn’t get too comfortable. The nuclear lobby is working overtime to keep cuts to a minimum. So far they’ve managed to persuade the House, where Nevada has only three representatives, to maintain funding at current levels. With Reid distracted by his role as Senate chief, it’s possible his hard-won cuts will be rolled back. Either way, it looks like it’ll take more than simply turning off the taps to derail Yucca Mountain.

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