Elected officials in rural Nye County say they support moving forward with a long-studied but mothballed national nuclear waste repository in Nevada, unlike their counterparts in urban Las Vegas, approximately 90 miles away.
But the Las Vegas Sun reports that residents who live close to Yucca Mountain are split on whether storing approximately 70,000 tons of nuclear waste there is a good idea.
Spanning more than 18,000 square miles, Nye County is the largest county by area in Nevada, with a population of 44,200 people.
Some see the proposed repository as a potential bringer of economic development and jobs to a county where nearly 19% of residents live below the poverty line.
Others say the environmental and human health risks of transporting and storing the nation’s most radioactive material are too high, and unjust, considering that Nevada doesn’t produce nuclear energy.
Nevada’s U.S. senators, Jacky Rosen and Catherine Cortez Masto, Gov. Steve Sisolak, Democrats, and most of the state’s congressional representatives and officials in Clark County surrounding Las Vegas share similar concerns.
Nonetheless, Nye County commissioners are urging lawmakers in Congress to support the Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act of 2019, sponsored by Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyoming, chairman of the Committee on Environment and Public Works.
The bill has a name recalling a measure that Congress passed in 1982 and amended in 1987. It would restart the licensing process for establishing Yucca Mountain as the primary storage site for the country’s spent nuclear fuel.
Progress toward licensing stopped in 2009 under President Barack Obama. President Donald Trump has signaled support for moving forward again.
In a letter to Barrasso and Sen. Tom Carper, D-Delaware, a ranking member of the Committee on Environment and Public Works, Nye County commissioners asked lawmakers to allow the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to renew its review of the Yucca Mountain proposal.
Eight other rural counties in Nevada also support resuming the Yucca Mountain licensing process.
“Nye County, the site county, has favored a full and fair review of the science by the NRC for years. We want decisions to be made on Yucca Mountain to be based on facts and science, and not empty rhetoric and fear mongering,” commissioners wrote April 30.
The county’s National Resources and Federal Facilities chief, Daryl Lacy, said many residents are convinced that nuclear waste isn’t inherently dangerous.
He says Yucca Mountain could bring several thousand highly paid jobs to Nye County, where the former Nevada Test Site, renamed the Nevada National Security Site, remains the largest employer in Nye County.
Lacy said officials support resuming discussions about how waste could be transported and stored safely, as well as financial benefits the county and the state would get in return.
“Many of the people here understand that yes, there’s risks, yes, it’s a nasty material, but it can be handled appropriately. And it’s not necessarily any worse than other things that have been done here in the past,” Lacy said, referring to nuclear detonations from 1951 to 1992.
Philip Coyle, a board member for a nonpartisan think tank that advocates for a reduction of nuclear weapons worldwide, agrees that a Yucca Mountain repository could be built and managed safely.
“Even though some people in Nevada don’t think it’s a very good idea and don’t like it, nobody has found a better place,” said Coyle, who previously served as assistant secretary of defense and director of operational test and evaluation at the Pentagon. He is now at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.
Ninety-eight nuclear reactors operating in 30 U.S. states have so far produced approximately 90,000 tons of radioactive waste. Most is stored at reactor sites using dry cask storage, intended to be a temporary solution.
Dry cask storage isn’t an ideal long-term solution, Coyle said, and storing nuclear waste in so many temporary facilities across the country could pose security and safety risks in the event of a natural disaster or terrorist attack.
Some residents within sight of Yucca Mountain aren’t bothered by the idea of storing the country’s nuclear waste near their homes.
“It’s got to go somewhere,” said Debbie Mendyk, deputy town clerk in Amargosa Valley, 17 miles from the site.
“Most of us, we’re used to this. We know what the stories are, and we don’t have problems with it,” said Mendyk, whose father worked at Yucca Mountain years ago.
“If Yucca Mountain was designed to be a repository, it should be allowed to be a repository,” said Tom Jones, 80, a retiree who is among 36,400 residents living in Pahrump, the county’s largest town 60 miles west of Las Vegas.
“Admittedly, this radioactive material is nasty stuff and we’ve created a monster,”Jones said, “but it’s part of our life and we’ve got to figure out how to deal.”
Susan Sorrells, owner and manager of Shoshone Village just over the California state line, says Yucca Mountain could devastate an area that relies on tourism to Death Valley National Park, which draws more than 1 million people a year.
A fourth-generation resident of the town of fewer than 30 people, Sorrells said Yucca Mountain would negatively impact ecotourism that she spearheads. She also worries about impacts on the area water supply, which she says is affected by nuclear testing decades ago.
Patrick Donnelly, Nevada director for the Center for Biological Diversity and a former Shoshone resident, said he believes environmental and safety risks outweigh potential economic benefits.
Joe Kennedy, former Timbisha Shoshone chairman, says nuclear waste could affect the environment and water supply in Indian Village and Furnace Creek, California, close to Death Valley.
Ian Zabarte, principal man for the larger Western Shoshone Nation that includes the Timbisha, questions whether the Timbisha would reap any financial benefits if Yucca Mountain moves forward.
Lacy, hopes to retire the position that everyone in Nevada is unequivocally opposed to the project.
“We’ve been portrayed as being pro-Yucca Mountain,” the Nye County official said. “We’ve been pro-science, is I think a better way to look at it. We think the rest of the decisions could be done in a way that’s pro-science, so we’d like to see that.”