Nevada is asking the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to reconsider the issue of Yucca Mountain — where the federal government has long sought to build a national nuclear waste repository in the Nevada desert — to prevent the project from get a license.
The decision to reject the Yucca licensing process, which has been on hold for 11 years since Congress stopped funding it, would set the project back years if a future administration tries to revive it and Nevada continues to oppose the project.
“[T]he persistent fiction of the license application must end,” Nuclear Projects Agency Executive Director Fred Dilger said in a brief interview this week.
Dilger was appointed director of the state nuclear agency by Governor Steve Sisolak in 2020.
“Many of them there [in D.C.] know that we will fight them every step of the way,” Dilger said of the state’s fierce opposition to the project.
“Every time I talk to [federal officials]the first thing that comes out of my mouth is that Nevada has been fighting this since 1987,” Dilger continued, citing the year Congress amended the Nuclear Waste Policy Act to deem Yucca the nuclear waste receptacle of the country.
“That position hasn’t changed, it’s not going to change,” Dilger said. “If you want a fight, we’ll give it to you.”
President Joe Biden’s Department of Energy (DOE) has mothballed Yucca and is continuing to build temporary nuclear waste storage facilities. This would reduce the pressure to build a permanent repository in the short term.
According to a 2021 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, 86,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel are stored on-site at 75 operating or shutdown nuclear power plants in 33 states. This load is estimated to increase by approximately 2,000 metric tons per year.
The state’s legal team assured Dilger that if they were unable to complete the licensing process, their legal position would not be adversely affected. Dilger said he believes the NRC will decide by November on whether to resume the jurisdictional portion of the licensing process for the project.
If the NRC agrees, the state is prepared to present three arguments to justify closing the licensing process. A decision on this subject could be made by January or February. Dilger declined to provide details on those arguments, preferring to wait until later in the process, which will be by filing of documents and will not require an in-person hearing.
The state also believes that the NRC has sufficient funding to hear state arguments without the need for new federal appropriations.
The timing of the state’s decision depended on the Senate confirming in August two Biden nominees to the NRC, which gave the agency a full complement of five commissioners for the first time since January 2021.
Among the two nominees was Bradley Crowell, who previously served as director of the Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. Crowell, an NRC Democrat, was first nominated in 2016 by former Gov. Brian Sandoval, a Republican, and was reappointed by Sisolak, a Democrat, in 2019.
Dilger said the state wants to be part of the solution and can do so by ending the Yucca licensing process and helping pass on the lessons of a failed experience that saw the nation impose the case on the Nevada.
“[T]The point is, we’re trying to do something here to move the dial in a positive direction,” Dilger said. “Nevada wants to be part of the solution. We understand how not to build a repository… We know all about how not to.
A key factor that could help future efforts to locate a repository is to ensure state buy-in rather than local buy-in.
There needs to be “a level of trust between the agency that manages this waste and the state,” Dilger said.
Nevada’s relationship with the DOE has been strained by Project Yucca and other flashpoints, including the accidental shipment of low-level nuclear waste to the state, which came to light in 2019, and the secret shipment of plutonium in Nevada, also disclosed in 2019. The plutonium was removed under an agreement negotiated by Senator Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) and the DOE.
The strained relationship was referenced in a letter dated Tuesday, organized by Rep. Dina Titus (D-NV) and signed by Rep. Susie Lee (D-NV) and Rep. Steven Horsford (D-NV), to the President of the NRC. Christopher Hanson calls for “a fair and full consideration of the State of Nevada’s petition so that our state can have its voice heard in this process.”
As Dilger kept his cards close to his vest on the arguments the state would make, opponents, including Sisolak and every Democrat on the congressional delegation, have long argued that burying the waste in Yucca would threaten the waters. state underground. The contamination would come from the porous volcanic rock of Yucca, allowing water to reach and corrode the barrels housing the waste.
The state also cited seismic activity in Yucca, which could damage drums, and the risk posed by transporting waste into Nevada to communities along the route, not just in the Silver State.
These arguments are part of a new anti-Yucca website the state unveiled on Tuesday. The state also said that since the 1987 law, more seismic research has shown that Yucca is part of a primary fault zone, known as Walker Lane, which geologists believe will become the margin of the tectonic plate between the Pacific and North American plates.
Las Vegas has also grown since 1987 and its northern boundary is now about 65 miles from Yucca. The website also noted that Creech Air Force Base, which trains drone pilots, was not in its current form in 1987 and that the baseline would threaten Air Force readiness.
Legislation still needed
Even if Nevada succeeds, the state still needs congressional action to remove Yucca as an official site.
But efforts to pass such a bill have stalled. A measure titled the Nuclear Waste Administration Act (NWAA) of 2019 includes language that would implement a consent-based process for future consolidated waste storage facilities. But this consent requirement is not extended to Nevada.
Cortez Masto worked with the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) to add language giving Nevada veto power over the bill. Yet yucca proponents, like Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-CA), have shown no sign of allowing it.
In 2021, Cortez Masto introduced legislation requiring consent from state, local, and tribal governments to build a national nuclear waste repository, including at Yucca Mountain. Titus introduced the House version. Jacky Rosen (D-NV), Horsford and Lee, who all pledged to block the bill, co-sponsored the Senate and House measures respectively. But these bills have not been reviewed since their introduction.
Prior to Biden’s opposition to Yucca, former President Donald Trump flipped the issue ahead of his 2020 re-election bid, reflecting an understanding of the issue’s relative importance in the state. But he lost Nevada by two points. Its fiscal year 2021 budget did not include any funds for the project, but its first three spending plans did.
The delegation last managed to fend off a scare in 2019, when House Republicans on the appropriations committee pushed to add $74 million to a must-have spending bill to jump-start the project’s approval process. .
The amendment was narrowly defeated 27 to 25 after Nevada members pushed to win over fellow Democrats on the panel.
Horsford, at the time just a member of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), lobbied fellow CBC members who also served on the spending panel, including Rep. Sanford Bishop of Georgia. Horsford is now CBC’s second-in-command.
Titus, who is close to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, won her backing. Historically, Pelosi had opposed the Yucca project, dating back to when former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), who retired in 2016, led the delegation fight against the project.
Nevada Republican Representative Mark Amodei also played a key role. He sits on the spending panel and his vote was unknown until he cast it. He was the only Republican on the committee to oppose the GOP-penned amendment. Amodei supports pursuing funding to study Yucca, but said the state would need compensation for the GOP to win its vote to formally move the project forward.
The Reid Legacy
The demise of the project is part of Reid’s considerable legacy.
It was Reid who convinced President Barack Obama to kill the project. Obama’s DOD attempted to remove the license from the project in 2010, a watershed moment for Yucca, which helped him and the delegation block all federal funding for the repository since 2011. The NRC eventually ended by suspending the license due to lack of funds.
Reid, who died last year, had always argued that the process by which Nevada was labeled for nuclear waste was political, often citing the delegation’s lack of seniority when passing the bill colloquially named Screw Nevada. .
“The repugnant and mendacious political stab represented by the agreement reached against the
the people of Nevada should shame every member of Congress who supported this nuclear waste legislation,” Reid told the Senate in a December 1987 speech.
The sentiment was echoed more than 30 years later in a 2019 hearing by Cortez Masto, who said the 1987 law designating Yucca Mountain was intended as “an end around science, [establishing] consensus and public participation and was created intentionally to ignore Nevada at the expense of other states. »