Nevada Fights the Latest Attempt to Give It the Nation’s Nuclear Waste

A Congressional hearing on a bill to revive the Yucca Mountain facility pits Nevadans against everyone else.

Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., stands near Yucca Mountain, a long-stalled nuclear waste repository.  (John Locher / AP)

On Wednesday, the U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee’s environment subcommittee took up a draft bill to revive the long-delayed and long controversial plan to store the nation’s nuclear waste under Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Several of the subcommittee’s members—Democrats and Republicans alike—represent districts where nuclear waste is sitting with nowhere to go. Chairman John Shimkus’s home state of Illinois has the most nuclear waste of any state, and he’s made Yucca Mountain one of his signature issues.

Not represented by any members of the committee: Nevada, the state where Yucca Mountain is located. It was a sore point. Nevada has been fighting against the Yucca Mountain plan since 1987, when a bill designated the site as the nation’s permanent nuclear waste repository with little input from the state. It became known as the “Screw Nevada” bill, though actual construction of the site has stalled for political reasons. A Nevadan official took to calling the new draft bill “Screw Nevada 2.”  (The subcommittee did hold a hearing this past July for Nevadan stakeholders, before a bill was available.)

After Nevada’s representatives protested, the committee hastily added another panel of witnesses to the hearing. That panel was made up of the state’s senior senator, Republican Dean Heller, three of its four representatives—Ruben Kihuen, Dina Titus, and Jacky Rosen, all Democrats. For balance, it also included a supporter: Republican congressman Joe Wilson, whose South Carolina district includes decommissioned reactors once used to supply nuclear weapons.

So, unlike most of what goes on in Congress these days, the battle lines were drawn not by party but by state. Even the Democrats on the subcommittee generally recognized the need for Yucca Mountain, though they quibbled with some of the bill’s specifics.

Heller spoke first. Shimkus introduced the senator, who served in the House from 2007 to 2011, as “my friend, sometimes combatant.” Heller reiterated that his position has not changed. “Yucca Mountain is dead and should remain dead. It’s time to move past failed proposals of the past and look to solutions of the future.”

Next came Kihuen, who was elected last fall to represent the district where Yucca Mountain is located. Before introducing Kihuen, Shimkus stalled for a moment. “We called your staff to make sure we had the pronunciation right,” he said. It was the first time they’d met.

In his testimony, Kihuen honed in on the lines of conflict. “As a state with no nuclear energy facilities, it is exceedingly unfair that Nevada is asked to serve as the dumping ground for the rest of the country’s waste at great risk to our citizens,” he said. “I ask each of you on the committee to consider this: If this project was proposed in your district, near your family and threatened your constituent’s lives and jobs, would you support it?”

One of the reasons Yucca Mountain got derailed in the first place is former senator Harry Reid from Nevada, who made it his life’s mission to kill the project. When Reid was Senate majority leader, the Obama administration decided to mothball it. Reid retired earlier this year, and the Trump administration has signaled it wants to get the project back on track. The White House’s budget proposal includes $120 million to restart the process for getting a license to build storage facilities under Yucca Mountain.

Back home in Nevada, state Democrats and Republicans alike are still fighting the proposal. (One notable exemption: The local government in Nye County, where the site is located, has indicated they are open to the project because of the jobs it would provide.) Governor Brian Sandoval, a Republican, said last month, “We will leave no stone unturned as we pursue all viable options to defeat this ill-conceived project, including litigation.”

The draft bill under consideration would remove a few of the obstacles, such as the problem of water rights. In a second panel of representatives from industry and watchdog groups, Ward Sproat, former director of the energy department's office of civilian radioactive waste management, testified about the difficulty of getting water to build the Yucca Mountain facility from the state’s water engineer.

For example, when his office wanted to drill a small exploratory tunnel, they needed water to cool the drill bit. “The state water engineer was basically directed from the governor’s office not to give it to us,” said Sproat. They ended up having to truck water in. This new bill would make the Yucca Mountain project a “beneficial use” for water, meaning Nevada couldn’t keep water away from it.

This issue of state’s rights, traditionally a Republican rallying cry, has not been lost on Nevada. Senator Heller called the preemption of state authority “jarring to say the least.” The state has also filed 218 contentions with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission , which would issue the license to build the Yucca Mountain facility. It’s prepared dozens more contentions. Going through all of them will take an estimated two to four years. This bill would help restart the licensing process by removing outstanding issues like the state’s water rights.

The bill likely can make it through the House, while the Senate may be a tougher obstacle, but the real opposition will be in Nevada, where residents perceive the whole process going back to 1987 as a gross injustice. Back when Yucca Mountain was chosen, the two other finalist sites were in Texas and Washington, also two states the then-House speaker and Senate majority leader represented. They ushered through the amendment that became known as the “Screw Nevada” bill. A frequent talking point in the state is that Yucca Mountain was chosen for political, not scientific reasons.

“Yucca Mountain is a 20-year story of raw politics, state versus state, Republican versus Republican, Democrat versus Democrat,” said congressman Pete Olson of Texas during the hearing. And that story of state versus state continues.