Science’s Role in Yucca Mountain Debate Highlighted at Hearing

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Committee members and witnesses reflected on the feasibility of consent-based approaches to siting nuclear waste facilities and on whether scientific safety reviews and expanded nuclear R&D in Nevada could prove instrumental in securing public support for Yucca Mountain serving as a nuclear waste repository.

Yucca Mountain Map

Map depicting the location of Yucca Mountain and surrounding federal government test sites. (Image credit – DOE)

Earlier this month, the House Energy and Commerce Committee held a subcommittee hearing to consult with federal, state, and local officials from Nevada about what additional incentives the state should receive if Yucca Mountain ultimately serves as the nation’s primary repository for nuclear waste. Testifying at the hearing were three members of the Nevada congressional delegation, a Nevada state senator, the county commissioner for Nye County, where the mountain is located, and a local businessman. The committee also heard testimony from Rep. Robert Dold (R-IL), whose district contains a closed nuclear power plant.

Environment and the Economy Subcommittee Chair John Shimkus (R-IL), a long-time proponent of the Yucca Mountain repository, began the hearing by noting that Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval (R) turned down an invitation to testify. Instead, Sandoval sent a letter to the committee stating that Nevada continues to oppose the project on “scientific, technical and legal merits.” Undeterred, Shimkus expressed his confidence that the scientific and technical issues can be resolved through the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s licensing process.

Although the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1987 effectively designated Yucca Mountain as the nation’s sole disposal facility, strong resistance to the project from many of Nevada’s federal, state, and local representatives has to date prevented the act from being fully implemented. Overall, the witnesses’ attitudes toward Yucca Mountain ranged from adamant opposition to varying degrees of receptiveness to discussing what incentives Nevada should receive if the repository is ultimately approved.

Committee leaders debate merits of consent-based siting approach

Map of U.S. nuclear waste storage locations

In the absence of a permanent repository, nuclear waste from commercial nuclear power plants and national security facilities is currently stored at numerous sites across the U.S. (Image credit – DOE)

Following the Obama Administration’s decision in 2009 not to pursue Yucca Mountain as a repository, then Energy Secretary Steven Chu established the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future (BRC) to study alternatives. The BRC recommended in 2012 that the Department of Energy seek approval from affected communities before moving ahead with siting of waste storage and disposal facilities. In 2013, DOE announced that it would adopt this “consent-based” approach for interim storage facilities as well as a final geologic repository.

At the time of the hearing, DOE was close to completing a series of eight meetings held to inform the department’s process for determining communities’ willingness to host such facilities. Shimkus derided this activity in his opening statement:

The Department of Energy is currently in the midst of an extended roadshow to highlight a political message that states should each have veto power over a national decision to resolve a national challenge. But this publicity campaign ignores the law of the land. Nye County offered to host a DOE public meeting, but the department instead chose to pursue meetings in the far reaches of the country and pretend the citizens of Nye County are irrelevant to this discussion.

Subcommittee Ranking Member Paul Tonko (D-NY) took the opposite view and noted that DOE’s approach is consistent with the BRC recommendation. Similarly, the ranking member of the full committee, Frank Pallone (D-NJ), expressed his support for the consent-based process and criticized the hearing’s focus on Yucca:

Regardless of your position on this issue, focusing solely on Nevada and Yucca Mountain does not help with moving this conversation forward. I believe this hearing might have been useful had we invited the Department of Energy to discuss its work on consent-based siting and interim storage. … Unfortunately, instead of new paths forward, all we’re doing is pursuing the same old path down the same old rabbit hole, with no clear purpose or benefit to the American people.

Witnesses suggest Nevada could become nuclear R&D hub

Multiple witnesses argued that if the nation decides to move ahead with the Yucca Mountain repository, Congress should, among other incentives, provide Nevada-based organizations with additional funding for R&D relevant to nuclear waste disposal and reprocessing. Rep. Mark Amodei (R-NV) asserted that such an approach may be central to winning over the public:

Nobody is in favor of a nuclear landfill. There is ongoing research in this country, in the state of Nevada, at the University of Nevada—Las Vegas, regarding reprocessing. [I think we need to talk about] treating this as a commodity instead of trash because, guess what? Even if you want to talk about consent, as long as we really see it as trash, good luck with that consent thing.

Amodei also argued that Nevada’s Desert Research Institute should play a central role in ongoing scientific assessments of the site. Anticipating charges of preferential treatment, Amodei stressed the importance of involving the local community. “Some people may scream ‘oh earmark!’ Well, guess what? The siting is the biggest earmark you can have, and we ought to at least have our homegrown folks take a look at it, that have scientific, objective credentials and credibility.” Similarly, Nye County Commissioner Dan Schinhofen argued that in addition to Congress providing more resources to Nevada’s universities, DOE should build new laboratory facilities in Nye County tasked in part with developing next generation nuclear technologies.

However, one witness was deeply skeptical of any promise of incentives. Rep. Dina Titus (D-NV) pointed to Congress’s general dysfunction as reason to mistrust any promise of the federal government providing the state additional incentives—“bribe money,” in her words. “Nevadans may be gamblers, but we’re not fools. We know how to calculate odds.” Titus also argued that the state’s contributions to nuclear weapons testing via the Nevada Test Site—now called the Nevada National Security Site—as well as the state’s lack of nuclear power plants should absolve it from the responsibility of hosting a repository. She concluded, “keep [the waste] where it is for now, pass a consent-based bill [such as the “Nuclear Waste Informed Consent Act” and], move forward so places that want it, can have it.”

Witnesses reflect on role of science in securing public support

Witnesses also presented a spectrum of views on the extent to which science will be able to resolve public concerns over the safety of storing nuclear waste in the state.

Some appeared optimistic. Rep. Cresent Hardy (R-NV) seemed confident that science could transcend politics and bring greater clarity to the debate. “The beauty of science is that it is a great equalizer. Whether you’re in Nevada, Illinois, or on the surface of the moon, the laws of science are universal, regardless of politics,” later adding, “Nevadans deserve to have honest brokers in their federal government, and they deserve to hear the unbiased, scientific results that all of their hard-earned dollars funded.” Schinhofen appeared to be the most willing to trust the NRC’s conclusions, stating “We believe in the integrity of the scientific review process for the Yucca Mountain repository.”

Others were more cautious. State Sen. Joesph Hardy (R) noted the challenges of overcoming public mistrust given Nevada’s history:

We already know that the aquifers under the Nevada Test Site have been contaminated by underground detonations as well as the well-documented effects of those downwind from the above ground detonations. People will mistrust a government report as recently released as May 2016 that uses the word ‘small’ in describing the potential adverse effect on water. … I realize that political science (counting votes) will trump science, but we need both to concur and work together.

Toward the end of the hearing, Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-CA)—a Ph.D. mathematician and a former engineer for Sandia National Laboratory—weighed in with a more pessimistic assessment:

You’ve said that we need transparency, [that] we need science. I’m just worried that even if we do those things that the mistrust is so deep that we’re not going to be able to convince any community to accept nuclear waste.

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