A few months back, I penned a column citing several initiatives that I believe deserve consensus support among fellow environmentalists. These Northwest centric initiatives feature enhanced reforestation, water infrastructure modernization, cleaner fuel options for ocean going vessels, elimination of raw sewage disposal in the Straits of Juan de Fuca, and last but not least the cleanup and permanent storage of Hanford nuclear waste. I offered that significant progress could be made to strengthen our biosphere irrespective of identity politics surrounding climate change. In other words, immediate attention to consensus-based regional priorities rather than continued divisive and seemingly endless debate.
Recent actions by the federal government may afford a glimmer of hope regarding action on the last item listed above – cleanup of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation and permanent storage of radioactive waste.
First, a little history. Nuclear waste is now stored “temporarily” at hundreds of nuclear storage sites and power plants nationwide. Environmentalists are uniformly anxious about potential releases of radiation into the environment and national security experts worry about the vulnerability of these sites to natural disasters and terrorist exploitation. These concerns, both rational and bipartisan, led to passage of the 1987 Nuclear Waste Policy Act establishing a permanent national waste storage facility. Planning was initiated and a recommended storage site at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain was identified. Thirty years have passed and nearly $15 billion invested and yet the Yucca Mountain facility remains unrealized — an apparent captive of political intrigue.
During the Obama Administration bi-partisan proponents of secure long-term waste storage were dismayed when licensing work on Yucca Mountain was indefinitely halted. The reason was long-standing opposition by Democrat powerhouse and Nevada resident, Senator Harry Reid. Reid’s leadership status and his extensive knowledge of Senate rules effectively blocked federally mandated work on Yucca Mountain. Reid faced opposing views within his own party, namely Washington’s own senior Senator Patty Murray, but even Murray was ineffective against the Reid juggernaut.
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In 2010, in an attempt to restart the Yucca Mountain licensing process, Robert Ferguson, a former deputy assistant energy secretary joined two Hanford area residents to bring suit against the federal government . The Ferguson lawsuit prevailed and in 2013 a Federal Court of Appeals directed the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to continue the legally mandated licensing process. The NRC complied and in 2014 reported that the Yucca Mountain site could safely store nuclear waste for a million years.
Reid is no longer in office, but Nevada’s new senior senator Dean Heller has picked up where Reid left off. Although Heller is a Republican, he shares Reid’s anti-project stance which reaffirms that Yucca Mountain is squarely a political “not in my back yard” drama unlikely to change with party affiliations. Unfortunately, it’s a drama that puts re-election politics ahead of the broader public interest.
So where’s the glimmer of hope? It may be small, but unlike Reid, Heller doesn’t enjoy policy support from a sympathetic Administration. The current Administration has proposed $120 million to restart work on Yucca Mountain and appears willing to weather the politics of nuclear waste storage. And, the incumbent Energy Secretary has called opening Yucca Mountain a “moral obligation.” Therefore, if Murray exercises her considerable influence among Senate colleagues a bipartisan path forward may be possible. This won’t be easy as Republicans want to retain their slim Senate majority and the risk of losing Heller’s seat over this issue will loom large. However, if Heller and Murray can find a common path they can accomplish what is right and honorable while leaving a historic bipartisan legacy for which they both can take pride.
Failure to capitalize on nearly $15 billion already invested at Yucca Mountain just isn’t acceptable and starting the process over means 30 or more years of delay and the accumulation of additional tons of nuclear waste widely dispersed throughout the country. Is there a more pressing reason to achieve a bipartisan solution? As a former President once said, “the status quo you know is Latin for the mess we’re in.” And, this radioactive mess needs cleaning up — now.