In Our View: Pressing the Feds

State attorney general turns up the heat on Nuclear Regulatory Commission

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Credit Rob McKenna with tenacity and stamina, even when taking on the federal government. On July 29 the Washington attorney general announced he had filed a new lawsuit — technically, a petition for a writ of mandamus — against the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. McKenna wants the feds to stop dragging their feet on the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository project in Nevada.

What does that project have to do with Washington state? Yucca Mountain is where nuclear waste from the Hanford nuclear reservation near Tri-Cities should be sent.

And what does that have to do with Clark County? Hanford is about 200 miles up the Columbia River from our county, and the radioactive waste there is leaking. A plume of the deadly stuff is moving toward underground water systems. As McKenna pointed out in announcing this most recent lawsuit, the urgency of this matter is seen in the 56 million gallons of nuclear waste that is stored, so to speak, in leaky underground tanks at Hanford.

All Washingtonians should hope McKenna finally starts getting the attention of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. He’s not alone in his efforts. Many other states with nuclear-waste storage needs have urged the federal government to open the Yucca Mountain repository as the lone permanent national storage site for nuclear waste. That’s what scientists recommended after spending millions of dollars and several years researching the matter. And it’s what the U.S. Department of Energy had in mind when it filed an application with the commission in 2008 for a license to begin construction.

Here’s another rather surprising ally for McKenna, as reported recently by The Spokesman-Review of Spokane. Officials in Nye County, Nev., where Yucca Mountain is located north of Las Vegas, have joined the McKenna lawsuit because they want the numerous high-paying jobs that would come with the construction and opening of such a project.

Unfortunately, as everyone who has followed this issue knows, President Barack Obama and DOE officials announced in January 2010 that the application had been withdrawn and that Yucca Mountain was off the table. Forget what those apolitical scientists had to say back in 2008. And, if you think the timing of the withdrawal of that proposal had nothing to do with the tough re-election campaign which Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., was conducting at the time, well, you’re entombed in dreamland.

There’s a side issue that makes this federal foot-dragging even more threatening to Hanford and Washington state. Abundant attention and talk has been dedicated to the idea of setting up interim storage facilities around the nation while the Yucca Mountain debate rages, and those facilities could be used for up to 100 years. Of course, Hanford could become one of those not-so-interim sites, in which case the opposite of what is intended would occur: Instead of Hanford becoming a nuclear-waste exporter, it would become an importer.

How absurd. It’s time for politicians to yield to scientific input. That’s the basis for McKenna’s new lawsuit, which is rooted in more than just provincial desires. It’s also anchored in federal law, as pointed out by McKenna’s Senior Counsel Andy Fitz at the recent announcement: “The determination of whether Yucca Mountain should open should be made on the merits of the Department of Energy’s license application, as Congress prescribed in law.”

Indeed, what are the feds waiting for? Nuclear waste to somehow disappear? McKenna has been clear: “It’s the federal government’s responsibility to clean up Hanford,” not to ignore it, and certainly not to make the problem worse.