Our View: Nation, Idaho need Yucca Mountain
December 19, 2006
A new Democratic Congress is talking about ending the 20-year Yucca Mountain debate by burying the proposed nuclear waste dump.
A Virginia energy startup company is talking about building the nation’s first nuclear power plant in a generation — in remote Bruneau.
The first conversation is troubling. The second, while sketchy, is overdue. And of course, the topics are inextricably linked. The longer the nation procrastinates and politicizes its nuclear waste disposal issue, the more it complicates building the next generation of nuclear plants, in Bruneau or anyplace else.
Yucca Mountain — a remote ridge 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas — is supposed to be the federal government’s burial ground for high-level nuclear waste. At least that’s why the feds have studied Yucca Mountain’s geology since 1978; in 1987, Congress made Yucca Mountain the nation’s nuclear waste dump of choice.
The topography hasn’t changed since then, or in the 11 million to 14 million years since volcanic eruptions created Yucca Mountain, but the political geology is shifting. New Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada is vowing to block Yucca Mountain, and he may have some key party allies on his side.
The not-in-my-backyard politics, while unfortunate, is bad enough. What’s worse is the suggestion that highly radioactive nuclear waste ought to simply stay put, in 126 backyards in 39 states across the country. Even Idaho, which gets no electricity from nuclear reactors, is on the hook. High-level waste stored at the Idaho National Laboratory is slated for Yucca Mountain.
We’ve said this before — we’ve had some practice these past 20 years — and we’ll say it again.
It’s unacceptable to indefinitely store waste above Idaho’s Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer, a primary source of water for much of southern Idaho.
It’s insulting to Idaho, since the feds have promised to move this waste.
And it’s inefficient to manage waste at dozens of sites; the benefits of permanent storage at one site override the challenges of transport.
As long as the nation does nothing to address nuclear waste, critics have a ready argument against any nuclear power proposal, such as Alternate Energy Holdings’ idea to build a nuclear plant near Bruneau.
At first blush, the proposal sounds surreal. The cost would approach $2 billion. The plant could power 1.5 million homes and would be twice as large as the Three Mile Island reactor, the site of a 1979 accident that threw the industry into a 30-year tailspin.
We cannot and will not reflexively dismiss the idea. We support pursuing a second generation of nuclear plants. We believe nuclear power offers a possible answer to several problems: greenhouse gases; the demands of providing power in a growing Northwest; and the need to replace hydropower generated at four lower Snake River dams, a fish-killing obstacle to recovering Idaho salmon.
However, a viable nuclear industry requires an efficient method for storing the waste.
Many of the activists who oppose Yucca Mountain also would oppose new nuclear power. Killing Yucca Mountain would serve their interests nicely. But it doesn’t serve the nation’s interest.