Bill might give Nevada a seat at the nuke waste negotiating table

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Two weeks ago Nevada’s Sens. Harry Reid and Dean Heller introduced Senate Bill 1825, which, if passed, will require the Secretary of Energy to obtain the consent of any affected state and local governments before establishing a nuclear waste repository. The senators have dubbed it the Nuclear Waste Informed Consent Act.

Since Congress designated Yucca Mountain as the nation’s sole repository for high-level nuclear waste from nuclear reactors in 1987, billions of dollars in ratepayer money have been poured into the 5-mile hole in the ground in Nye County. It was supposed to be operational by 1998.

The 1987 law has been less than affectionately referred to as the Screw Nevada Act.

Most Nevada officials, notably Reid himself, have fought and railed against the “dump” site, challenging it legislatively, financially and legally, though of late several elected officials have expressed a willingness to negotiate in exchange for benefits to the state, such as jobs and highway improvements.

An informed consent to say no also includes an informed consent to yes, if the deal is in the best interest of those who must live with it. It is hard to negotiate the best deal, if there is no power or authority to say no.

The bill also dovetails with a 2012 report by the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future. The panel lists eight key elements of a new strategy for locating a nuclear waste repository, the first of which is: “A new, consent-based approach to siting future nuclear waste management facilities.”

The commission noted that a majority of Nevada’s citizens strongly opposed the selection of Yucca Mountain as a repository site, though the project did have some
support from residents closest to the site in Nye, Mineral and Lincoln counties.

Earlier this year when the bill was being drafted, Heller stated, “Our nation must find solutions to address spent nuclear fuel, but any potential waste repository should have the consent and support of the affected state and local communities. No state, including Nevada, should be forced to accept waste against its will. With no conceivable path to building Yucca Mountain, it’s time for Washington to admit the obvious: the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository is a figment of the federal government’s imagination.”

For his part Reid said the federal government has wasted billions of dollars on Yucca Mountain, despite the objections of Nevadans. “The Nuclear Waste Informed Consent Act would ensure that no state’s voice may be silenced in the process of being considered for a nuclear waste repository. The game was rigged against Nevada when Congress gutted the original science-based siting process for a nuclear waste repository nearly three decades ago,” Reid said.

On the House side, Reps. Joe Heck and Dina Titus are working on a companion bill to the Senate version.

“The people of Nevada deserve to have a seat at the table in the nuclear waste storage conversation,” Heck has said.

Titus said no other state would stand for this kind of political targeting. “For far too long, supporters of the proposed Yucca Mountain repository have ignored the concerns of Nevada and its local communities,” she said.

But Nevada’s representatives whose constituents are closest to Yucca Mountain seem to be willing of late to discuss the possibility of using Yucca Mountain for temporary storage and research, if Nevada gets something for its trouble.

“I think Nevada needs to be in that discussion,” Rep. Cresent Hardy has said. “We need to be involved in it. I’ll never agree to have it shoved down our throats, but I think we need to be involved. If its got to come here, this is the best safety issue for it, then we need to be looking at the opportunities that we may have, if they’re there.”

Rep. Mark Amodei said the state’s leaders need to engage in a conversation instead of “just screaming, no.” He said money could go to reprocessing and monitoring research at UNLV and Desert Research Institute.

As originally envisioned, Yucca Mountain’s U-shaped shaft would have been filled with 70,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel rods, each covered by titanium and palladium drip shields to protect them from water seeping through the mountain. After 100 to 300 years the hole was to be sealed and pictographic warning signs erected. The material would still be hazardous for thousands of years.

Thomas Mitchell is a longtime Nevada newspaper columnist. You may email him at thomasmnv@yahoo.com. He also blogs at http://4thst8.wordpress.com/.

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