What’s next for Yucca Mountain?

Amid the celebration, uncertainty lingers

Nearing the end of a “wake” celebrating the Department of Energy’s application to withdraw the license for nuclear-waste storage at Yucca Mountain, Jenna Morton called for one last cheer from the crowd of more than 100 local activists and politicians.

“Yippee, Yucca is dead!” the partygoers chanted as well-worn battle signs reading “Bush Lied” and “Nevada Is Not a Wasteland!” dotted the crowd during the March 9 party at the Palms’ Ghostbar. Former Sen. Richard Bryan delivered a “eulogy” for Yucca Mountain and credited Sen. Harry Reid with “driving the silver stake into the heart” of the project.

Morton, co-owner of N9NE Group and organizer of the event, called the fight a “David and Goliath”-type battle. She has testified at DOE hearings and been a vocal critic of Yucca Mountain over the years.

However, just because the DOE withdrew its application, that doesn’t mean the issue is dead.

“Isn’t there a saying that ‘It ain’t over until the fat lady sings?’” says Martez Norris, executive director of the Nuclear Waste Strategy Coalition, a nuclear waste storage advocacy group in South Carolina that represents regulators and kingpin utility corporations. “From my perspective, it’s premature to celebrate. You’ve still got lawsuits in the courts.”

The state of Washington, South Carolina’s Aiken County and the state of South Carolina have all filed motions to intervene in the hearing for the license withdrawal. Washington is home to the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, the country’s most contaminated site. Yucca Mountain has been the intended destination spot for Hanford’s waste and used nuclear fuel.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s hearing board has yet to rule on other intervening groups as well. Then there will be a number of appeals, says Bruce Breslow, executive director of the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects, a state-run agency that advises the governor and Legislature. But he hopes the NRC will approve the withdrawal application this year.

There’s nothing on the table in terms of future plans for Yucca, Breslow says. Ideally, he likes to think the DOE could be convinced to restore the mountain back to its natural state, which would include filling in a fully developed tunnel that is five miles deep and 25 feet wide, but there haven’t been any salient ideas put into place. “I’ve only heard the joking from wine storage to bunker-busting bomb testing,” he says.

Norris supports the controversial idea of reprocessing waste at Yucca, which involves separating plutonium and uranium from nuclear waste so it can be reused in reactors. “It’s still the law of the land, but why not turn it into a reprocessing center?” she argues. “It would be a windfall in creating good-paying jobs in perpetuity. And it’s out in the desert. It’s isolated.”

But that’s exactly the problem, Breslow says. He cites water rights and earthquake faults as the main roadblocks to reprocessing, pointing out that the five water basins in the area have already been allocated. He also says it’s actually cheaper to buy fuel than to remake it. “It’s a ludicrous proposal based on quicksand,” he says. “Yucca Mountain, in middle of the desert with no water and multiple earthquake faults, would be the single worst location in the country for reprocessing.”

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