Nevada vows to continue court fight against nuclear dump
LAS VEGAS — After fighting a 20-year losing battle to stop the federal government from burying the nation’s nuclear waste in Nevada, opponents of the Yucca Mountain project promised Tuesday to press on. Others said it was time to give up and bargain.
Gov. Kenny Guinn, whose attempt to veto the project was overruled by the Senate on Tuesday and the house in May, promised to continue the state’s challenge in the courts, where the state has filed five lawsuits.
“Despite flawed science, the lack of transportation planning and now the lack of a clear consensus from the Senate, the Yucca Mountain project has barely survived another round,” Guinn said.
Energy Department officials have defended the selection of the Yucca Mountain project at the western edge of the Nevada Test Site 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
There was bitterness among some of those who have fought the Yucca Mountain proposal since Congress began in 1982 looking for a permanent place to bury the nation’s nuclear waste.
“They’ve chosen the nuclear industry over the people,” said Judy Treichel, director of the Las Vegas-based Nevada Nuclear Waste Task Force and an outspoken opponent of the project.
“I smell money, and it ain’t ours,” said Peggy Maze Johnson, executive director of Citizen Alert, another anti-Yucca Mountain organization. “It’s amazing there’s an industry rich enough to buy the Senate.”
Former Nevada Gov. Robert List, a consultant and one of the project’s highest-profile backers in Nevada, said the state should start bargaining for benefits.
“The politics of it have not played out the way we would have liked,” List said, “so we have to make lemonade out of the lemons and come away with some positives.”
List said the state will benefit from jobs and money spent building the site and from services and goods provided to it.
“Sixty billion dollars is a huge amount of money,” List said, rounding up federal estimates of the $57 billion expected to be spent on Yucca Mountain.
The Energy Department must obtain a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission before it can begin entombing 77,000 tons of spent commercial, industrial and military nuclear fuel in metal alloy containers in a grid of mined tunnels 1,000 feet deep.
The first shipments from 39 states would begin arriving in 2010. The site is being designed to remain radioactive for tens of thousands of years.
“No use fighting,” said Doris Jackson, a saloon owner and chairwoman of an elected advisory board in Amargosa Valley, the desert town closest to Yucca Mountain.
“It’s done. Let’s get what we can out of this.”
Jackson said her board began last month to draft a recommendation asking Nye County officials to pass along a request for federal aid to build roads, schools, water and sewer systems.
“Some people are talking about a high school or something,” Jackson said, “our property taxes paid forever, a complete water and sewer system for a 50-mile radius, paying for kids who go to college.”
Allison Macfarlane, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher who is writing a book about Yucca Mountain, called the Senate’s decision premature.
“Politics is once again moving ahead of the science,” she said from Boston.
Macfarlane, a geologist, said not enough is known about volcanic activity in the area and about water leaching through the mountain.
“If climate changes severely, there is a potential it could rain more at Yucca Mountain,” she said. “More water (would) seep down to repository level and corrode canisters that we don’t have that much data on and then transport radioactivity to the water table,” she said, “Then, it’s a question of how quickly radioactivity gets back to the surface.”
Bob Loux, director of the Nevada state Nuclear Projects Office, said the state will rely on its five lawsuits, four of which are pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington.
“We’re disappointed, but this is just the political side of the battle,” said Loux. “I think we’re going to fare much better in the legal arena.”
Two suits challenge the criteria on which President Bush and Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham made their decisions in favor of the project, and the validity of the Energy Department’s final environmental impact report.
The state also has separate lawsuits challenging the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s licensing standards and the Environmental Protection Agency’s radiation standards.
In Las Vegas, the state is fighting in U.S. District Court to cut off water to the project.
Loux said that with arguments set to begin on one case in February, he expected the lawsuits to take three or more years.
“They’ve got to win them all,” he said. “We only have to win one. Any of them are potentially fatal to the project.”