During congressional testimony earlier this week, Secretary of Energy Rick Perry reviewed and justified the White House’s reasoning behind many of its budget cuts proposals. For the most part, the back-and-forth between Sec. Perry and U.S. representatives on the House Energy and Water Development Appropriations subcommittee was benign, with the exception of some pointed questions and comments from Democrats. But what got most attention during and after the testimony was Perry’s insistence that the controversial Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Depository needs to be revived and fully funded.
“We have a moral and national security obligation to come up with a long-term solution, finding the safest repositories available,” the energy secretary said. “We could have a repeat of what happened at Fukushima, to some degree – I get passionate about this.”
This was not the first time Perry had brought up Yucca Mountain – it became a brief point of discussion during his confirmation hearings earlier this year when he was questioned about his stance by Senator Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada. At the time, Perry inferred that he respected the concerns of Nevada’s political leadership and general public on the state’s request to be heard out in the event that the new administration would reconsider moving forward on Yucca Mountain. But several months later, Perry’s testimony on Tuesday suggested that he and the White House would become much more aggressive on making Yucca Mountain reality – and Nevada would just have to go along with such a plan.
That rhetoric did not sit well with U.S. Representative Ruben Kihuen, whose district includes all of Nye County, which would host the proposed site. “Secretary Perry’s comments are the height of irresponsibility,” said Kihuen in a public statement. “The federal government has tried for years to force Nevada to serve as the dumping ground for the rest of the country’s nuclear waste without success.”
Dina Titus, another Nevada U.S. representative who represents a Las Vegas-area district that is 80 miles southeast of Yucca Mountain, was also adamant in her opposition to the project’s relaunch. “Rick Perry’s moral compass is pointing in the wrong direction,” she said in a press release. “The majority of Nevadans have never supported building a nuclear waste dump in our state yet Secretary Perry and the Trump Administration are determined to shove it down our throats.”
The Department of Energy (DOE) began studying Yucca Mountain’s potential for storing nuclear power waste in the late 1970s. Approval to develop the site for nuclear waste storage was approved by Congress in 2002. But local community groups, in addition to the native American Western Shoshone, joined the state’s political class in loudly protesting the project. Community leaders complained they were not assured enough about the project’s safety and transparency; the Shoshone were furious that the facility would be on land they consider to be under their sovereignty.
The project appeared to gain momentum a decade ago, as the nuclear power industry spurred more interest due to the high cost of fossil fuels. But while its advocates point out that nuclear power is a zero-emissions technology, critics have long countered that the waste issue, in addition to nuclear power projects’ increasingly expensive costs, did not justify the investment. By 2011, the Obama Administration had shuttered the Yucca Mountain project.
The renewed debate over Yucca Mountain is less about a new administration and more about a huge political power player leaving Washington, D.C. For years, former Nevada Senator Harry Reid led the charge against Yucca Mountain becoming the nation’s premier nuclear waste facility. But now that Reid has retired, no one in either house of Congress has the clout to stop the project from re-opening.
But as Perry pointed out, much of the nuclear power dispersed across the country in dry cask storage, a technology environmental groups, such as the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), say is fraught with risk. They argue that some of those storage facilities are in areas with extreme weather or geological risks, such as earthquake-prone California.
While nuclear power advocates insist that this technology can generate copious amounts of power without contributing to air pollution, others question nuclear’s overall viability when considering its cost versus the plunging price of renewables such as solar and wind power. And of course, the chance of risk to some just make nuclear not worth the endeavor. “if you include social externalities as societal subsidies, the estimated costs of fossil fuels and nuclear energy are hugely subsidized,” said Zachary Shahan of CleanTechnica in an analysis of the costs of various power sources in an article written last year.
Image credit: Gage Skidmore