As anybody familiar with the Hanford Nuclear Reservation can attest, the United States has a problem with radioactive waste. Decades of waste from the production of nuclear weapons and nuclear energy can be found in 39 states, highlighting the need for a federal plan to store the material and protect hundreds of communities.
But in a proposed federal budget that was released this week, President Donald Trump is reversing course regarding a congressionally approved national depository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Previous budget requests from Trump earmarked more than $100 million to jumpstart the permitting process for Yucca Mountain, but this year’s budget will not contain any funding.
“Nevada, I hear you on Yucca Mountain and my Administration will RESPECT you! Congress and previous Administrations have long failed to find lasting solutions — my Administration is committed to exploring innovative approaches — I’m confident we can get it done!” the president wrote on Twitter last week.
One hour after that tweet, the Trump campaign announced an event later this month in Nevada featuring Donald Trump Jr. The president lost Nevada by 2.4 percentage points in 2016.
Regardless of the motivation for Trump’s decision, innovative solutions are, indeed, necessary. The issue is particularly important to Washington, where the Hanford Nuclear Reservation is considered the nation’s most toxic site. Hanford sits near the Columbia River about 200 miles upstream from Vancouver, and several of the underground tanks holding waste are leaking.
Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside, whose district includes Hanford, said: “It is disappointing to see Yucca Mountain continued to be used as a political pawn. I urge President Trump to reconsider this change in position.”
Newhouse added: “The federal government’s commitment to the cleanup at Hanford relies on a permanent waste repository, and it is important to note that this is simply the law of the land — Yucca Mountain is the nation’s sole permanent repository for (high-level radioactive) nuclear waste.”
That status was established by Congress in 1987. But continued opposition from Nevada officials and residents has halted progress on a plan that would bury waste under miles of rock far from populated areas. By 2010, the proposal retained bipartisan support in Congress, but progress was halted by the Obama administration.
The federal government’s obligation to clean up Hanford has been confirmed several times by the courts, and Washington officials long have jousted with federal officials over the lack of progress at the site and over the persistent and growing danger to residents of Eastern Washington. A $17 billion vitrification plant is being constructed at Hanford to turn waste into a more benign glasslike substance, but questions remain about the ultimate destination for the material.
That is where the need for innovative solutions arises.
If the federal government designates a different national repository or creates a series of sites for the safe storage of waste, it will fulfill its obligation to Washington and to other states. But if it merely rejects Yucca Mountain while failing to develop alternative proposals, it will be ignoring its duty while sweeping a pressing issue under the rug.
Such dereliction of duty has been the approach for far too long from far too many administrations. The Trump administration must take the lead in solving this persistent problem.