In Our View: Eyes Back on Yucca

Proposed nuclear waste dump in Nevada should be re-examined, court rules

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For three decades, scientists (and not politicians) studied Nevada’s Yucca Mountain and drew the scientifically supported conclusion that it was the best place for a national nuclear-waste repository.

Then along came politics … specifically Nevada Sen. Harry Reid’s bid for re-election, which received a boost when President Obama unilaterally ordered that construction be stopped on the Yucca Mountain facility. Never mind the scientists. Never mind $10 billion already spent on the Yucca Mountain nuclear dump. Never mind Obama’s avowed support of nuclear energy, which carries the ancillary need for a place to store radioactive waste.

Then along came the Nov. 3 election, when Reid narrowly won another six years in the Senate.

Now, maybe we can get back to acknowledging the scientists’ wisdom. This issue is doubly connected to Washington state. First, the most contaminated nuclear waste site in the nation is the Hanford nuclear reservation near Tri-Cities. Second, Washington was one of three entities that sued the Department of Energy, demanding evidence to support Obama’s claim that the Yucca Mountain project was unsafe, and insisting that construction resume. (The other two entities in that lawsuit are South Carolina and the National Association of Utility Regulators.)

Then along came a federal appeals court ruling. On Dec. 10 the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., lifted its stay on the lawsuit and gave the Department of Energy a Jan. 3 deadline to defend its authority to shut down the Yucca Mountain endeavor.

Let us all hope that now, finally, science will be allowed to prevail over politics in this issue of national importance. Plans are to bury at least 77,000 tons of highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel in the facility 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas. Sounds dangerous, right? Yes, but the Yucca Mountain plan becomes ultra-safe when compared with the status quo: nuclear waste stored at more than 120 sites around the country, including Hanford. And here are some alarming details about the status quo that we reported earlier this year: Hanford — on the Columbia River about 220 miles from Vancouver — has 177 tanks with 53 million gallons of radioactive waste, 1 million gallons of which have leached into the ground.

Highly hypocritical is the only way to describe President Obama’s involvement in this matter. While appropriately supporting the expansion of nuclear energy (to the chagrin and dismay of many in his own party) Obama has shown an acute attention to the value of science. But his blocking a perfectly sensible plan to store nuclear waste shows a keen devotion to politics. No one should be surprised by a politician acting politically, but now that Reid is re-elected, the scientifically unsupportable opposition by Nevadans to the Yucca Mountain project must succumb to the greater need of the nation.

Among the praiseworthy leaders who have challenged Obama and the Department of Energy on the shelving of the Yucca Mountain project is one of the president’s closest allies, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. She and U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, Republican from Tri-Cities, have correctly led the effort to not only clean up Hanford but move the waste to where it belongs. Washington state’s nuclear waste problem was created by the federal government. That same government should solve the problem, and the solution is in Nevada.

Who says? The ones who should count most: the scientists.