Is the Yucca Dump Doomed?
WASHINGTON -- While supporters vow to plow forward with plans for a nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain, Nev., critics hope Democrats will be able to kill the project -- which would take highly radioactive material transported through the Southland -- when they take control of Congress this month.
Led by incoming Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., who already has declared the federal nuclear waste repository "dead," congressional Democrats are expected to severely decrease funding for the dump.
That, opponents say, is good news for Ventura, Los Angeles, San Bernardino and other communities through which approximately 70,000 tons of radioactive waste would likely be shipped on its way to the site 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
"All of us in the Inland Empire will be safer if shipments of nuclear waste are not traveling through our communities on local highways or railroad tracks," said Democrat Rep. Joe Baca, whose San Bernardino district lies smack in the middle of the proposed shipment route.
"An accident could have deadly consequences," Baca said. "We are fortunate that Harry Reid will be the Senate majority leader and in a better position to block the Yucca Mountain project."
First proposed in 1982, the Yucca Mountain depository has been strongly supported by President George W. Bush and the nuclear energy industry. Proponents say it is a secure alternative to storing waste at nuclear plants and hundreds of other sites around the country.
Originally targeted to open in 1998, Yucca Mountain has been repeatedly set back by lawsuits, money shortfalls and scientific controversies. The Department of Energy's best-case opening date is now 2017.
Southern Californians are concerned about proposals to ship spent nuclear fuel to Yucca Mountain from the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant in San Luis Obispo County -- a trek that could take it by train through Ventura County and the San Fernando Valley.
There have also been discussions about a rail line through the Antelope Valley and across the High Desert; multiple rail links through the San Gabriel, Pomona and San Bernardino valleys; and a truck route from the San Onofre nuclear power plant along the Santa Ana, San Gabriel and San Bernardino freeway corridors.
The DOE is poised to submit a license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in mid-2008 that will allow it to proceed. But activists on both sides of the issue acknowledge that the DOE is quietly preparing for the likelihood of reduced funding and political support for Yucca.
"I'm getting the sense there may be some reluctance to submit a sizeable, needed budget if Mr. Reid is just going to have it reduced," said Brian O'Connell, director of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners' nuclear waste program.
He and other supporters of the repository have accused Reid of overstepping his power by refusing to allow Yucca legislation to come for a vote, and they argue that safety concerns have been blown out of proportion and politicized.
"The typical representation of nuclear waste is a 50-ton cannister with green goo hanging out the sides," O'Connell said. "It is well-protected. And the reality is that it has been shipped safely for over 30 years."
Annual federal funding for Yucca Mountain has ranged from $450 million to $550 million in recent years. O'Connell predicted that Reid and other lawmakers will "drastically reduce" that amount.
Michelle Boyd, legislative director at Public Citizen, agreed, saying Yucca officials "are hobbling along, and they're going to be hobbling even more when they have less money. It's certainly on its last legs."
She and others also noted that the newly empowered anti-Yucca coalition in Congress has vowed to block bills like the one introduced last year by Sen. Pete Dominic, R-N.M., and Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, to guarantee funding for the repository.
"No legislation will occur as long as Reid is there," said Bob Loux, executive director of Nevada's Agency for Nuclear Projects. "We believe this project has been on life support anyway for the last several years. This may be the final nail."
O'Connell disagreed that the death of Yucca is near.
"I don't think so," he said. "(Reid) will do everything he can to impede it, but he can't kill it outright."
Argun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research agreed.
Though an opponent of Yucca Mountain who calls it a "badly botched project," Makhijani said he expects plans for the repository to move ahead with shrunken resources.
"I don't think the project can be stopped altogether without setting in motion some larger scheme for the management of spent fuel," he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Source: McClatchy-Tribune Information Services