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Utah Legislator Wants Colleagues' Support Opposing Yucca Mountain Repository

Photo of Yucca Mountain.
U.S. Energy Department via Wikimedia Commons
Waste from nuclear reactors would be buried in an underground repository 80 miles northwest of Las Vegas if Congress and the Trump administration revive the Yucca Mountain Project. A Utah state senator wants his colleagues to oppose the site.

A Utah state senator wants his fellow lawmakers to go on record opposing the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in neighboring Nevada.

State Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, wants to bring attention to new efforts by Congress and the Trump administration to revive a waste disposal program that the Obama administration shelved. He has asked the Legislature’s lawyers to draft a nonbinding resolution for 2019 session that expresses Utah’s objections - especially concerns about lethally radioactive waste traveling the state’s highways and railways en route to the Nevada repository.

“This is really nothing more than raising the issue with our congressional delegation and asking them to oppose the storage site because of the health hazards that could face us here in the state of Utah,” Davis said.

The Yucca Mountain controversy has reemerged this year - it even popped up during a campaign stop over the weekend when President Donald Trump said he agreed with Nevadans who oppose the repository despite his own administration’s request for $120 million to resume licensing the repository. In weeks ahead, the administration’s plans may become clearer and Davis might find he has an unlikely ally in the White House.

In the meantime, there’s heightened attention to what would happen if the nuclear waste disposal plan were to move forward. Generally speaking, spent fuel from nuclear power plants and waste from military operations would regularly travel by truck and rail to the deep geological disposal site about 80 miles northwest of Las Vegas. Davis said those shipments would put the health and safety of Utahns at risk, especially if there are spills.

The Energy Department studied Yucca Mountain for years as a long-term solution for disposing of the nation’s backlog of high-level nuclear waste. High-level waste is extremely dangerous - so dangerous that nuclear plants pack it into the same thick steel-and-concrete casks that the waste will be buried in, whether at Yucca Mountain or somewhere else.

For several years, the waste was headed for a mile square “parking lot” on the Skull Valley Goshute Reservation about 45 miles west of Salt Lake City. The nuclear consortium behind the Skull Valley Interim Storage site was able to secure a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 2006 but surrendered the license six years later when onsite storage was becoming the norm.

The backlog — basically all of the high-level nuclear waste that’s ever been generated by the nation’s commercial nuclear reactors — has grown to nearly 100 million tons.

And, last spring, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill by U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., to advance the project. The legislation divided Utah’s House delegation, all of whom are Republicans. Reps. Rob Bishop and Mia Love opposed the bill, while Reps. Chris Stewart and John Curtis supported it.

Republican leaders in the U.S. Senate have reportedly held off on supporting these moves to revive Yucca Mountain to avoid injuring the reelection chances of incumbent GOP Sen. Dean Heller, among the most vulnerable Republican seats in the national election. Even President Donald Trump seems sensitive to the issue despite his administration’s $120 million funding request. Trump spoke out against the idea of reviving Yucca Mountain at a rally Saturday during a campaign swing through Nevada.

Meanwhile, Yucca Mountain opponents are gearing up for renewed battle after the November election.

“The choice of Yucca Mountain for the nuke dump was purely political — it was known as the ‘Screw Nevada Bill’,” said Steve Erickson, an anti-nuclear advocate, in a news release. “When it comes to radioactive waste disposal, to paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, Westerners need to hang together in opposition, or we will surely hang separately.”

Credit U.S. Energy Department via Wikimedia Commons
Nuclear Waste at Yucca Mountain: The U.S. Energy Department Plan.

Judy Fahys has reported in Utah for two decades, covering politics, government and business before taking on environmental issues. She loves covering Utah, where petroleum-pipeline spills, the nation’s radioactive legacy and other types of pollution provide endless fodder for stories. Previously, she worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, and reported on the nation’s capital for States News Service and the Scripps League newspaper chain. She is a longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She also spent an academic year as a research fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys being out in the environment, especially hiking, gardening and watercolor painting.
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