LAS VEGAS — Yucca Mountain is a wild expanse of desert brush, red mountains and extracted rock 100 miles outside of Las Vegas where deer, coyote and antelope roam isolated fields and human visitors must pass background checks before they are allowed past heavily guarded fences.
Republicans claim this stark landscape is the nation’s best hope for a national nuclear waste dump.
But with Democrats running the White House and Senate, the Yucca Mountain nuclear site has been shuttered with no chance of reopening.
Critics claim the project is dangerous. The half-built nuclear junkyard would require nuclear plants to ship their waste to rural Nevada along the nation’s vulnerable roadways and railways.
Yet some proponents refuse to back down. A House subcommittee on energy and commerce plans to question nuclear leaders in a hearing Wednesday that is part of an ongoing investigation into the legality of abandoning the project.
At the center of the battle is the enduring question of what to do with the tons of radioactive waste stored at nuclear power plants across the nation.
In general, Republicans, especially those in Texas, Illinois, South Carolina and Mississippi and other states that depend on nuclear reactors for power and jobs, worry the temporary storage containers at nuclear plants are not safe, and want to see the waste moved to the Nevada wild.
“It’s in a desert and it’s underneath a mountain,” said Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., chairman of the House energy and commerce subcommittee. “If you can’t put it here, you can’t put it anywhere.”
Shimkus led a fact-finding trip to the remote outpost last week, where he surveyed the red rock and vacant horizon with appreciation while wearing a hard hat and rubber boots. It was the first tour of the site since the Department of Energy filed a motion with the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission to withdraw its application for Yucca Mountain last year.
The 19-person exploratory group traveled into the mouth of the 5-mile tunnel that was designed to store nuclear waste.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who leads Nevada’s congressional delegation, responded with heated language.
“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,” Reid said in a written statement.
Yucca Mountain was picked as a potential home for the nuclear industry’s waste four decades ago. The nation has no place to permanently hold the waste, which stays dangerous for tens of thousands of years.
Under the plan approved by Congress in 2002, nearly 200 shipments of waste would arrive each year for 24 years. The fuel would have been stored 1,000 feet below the ground, and 1,000 feet above the water table.
The Obama administration’s decision to shutter the site has birthed a slew of lawsuits and heated rhetoric.
Republicans Govs. Haley Barbour of Mississippi and Nikki Haley of South Carolina are vocal supporters of the waste site, and South Carolina and Washington are suing federal officials over the closure. Proponents claim no scientific findings have been provided to support the decision.
Still, it would take more than a change of heart from the White House to open Yucca Mountain. No funding has been allocated for the project in this year’s federal budget. What’s more, a transportation system to transfer spent fuel from the nation’s 104 operating nuclear reactors to Nevada has yet to be conceived. Simply put, how would the waste get to Yucca Mountain?
Nevada officials also cite an active fault line underneath the project that could erupt at any time, as well as a ballooning price tag that could reach $100 billion.
“Remoteness is not a criteria for geological disposal,” said Joseph Strolin, Nevada’s nuclear director.