Shutdown scatters workers, sparks Nev. debate over 'clean energy' jobs

April Gil had worked at Yucca Mountain for more than 20 years when it closed in 2010, and like many of her colleagues, she had built her career -- and life -- around the decades-long effort to find a central storage place for U.S. nuclear waste.

But Yucca's closure meant high-level technical jobs like Gil's disappeared almost overnight in Nevada, leaving many with a hard choice: local unemployment or a cross-country move.

"It was really difficult emotionally -- really difficult," Gil said in a recent interview. "I had been there for so long, and I had made friends, and I really thought I would retire on Yucca. It's really hard to start from scratch."

For Gil, a Department of Energy employee, the eventual outcome was a professional gain: She now works in DOE's Office of Legacy Management in what she calls her "dream job."

But for many, the closure of Yucca meant fewer professional prospects in a state that has one of the nation's worst job markets. When the project closed in 2010, Nevada led the nation with a 13.9 percent unemployment rate; two years later, the Bureau of Labor and Statistics estimates it is 11.6 percent, still far above the national average of 8.2 percent.


The debate over Yucca's closure -- and where to send the nation's nuclear waste -- continues to spur partisan bickering in Congress. The outlook of former Yucca employees is much more personal: They had to start new lives after losing their jobs and several decry what they see as the abandonment of a career's worth of hard work and research for political posturing (Greenwire, May 10).

"What burned us the most was that we could always sort of accept it if the [Nuclear Regulatory Commission] went through all the license applications and said, 'Hey, we're not cool on this idea,'" said John Rimmaudo, who worked on the project for almost 14 years in the facilities department. "But to just be shut down for political reasons and have people lose their jobs and lives, it's hard to swallow. It's still tough."

It is a common sentiment among Rimmaudo's former colleagues, scientists and managers alike.

"The bitterness -- it tends to fade," said Roger Henning, who was a contract employee at the site for 17 years, most recently as the senior principal hydrogeologist and technical manager. "This election is clearly building it up."

Since he was laid off, Henning has found work only once: as a speaker at a two-day event on nuclear waste in England.

His other job prospects have been out of reach: foreign posts in Afghanistan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia. At age 65, he said, he doesn't want to uproot; he has a house, a life, a son who just graduated from high school.

Rimmaudo did move -- to Palm Beach, Fla. -- but has also been unable to find a job. Unlike Henning, who has a doctorate, Rimmaudo didn't go to college at all. But his job at Yucca provided a good living that allowed him to buy two homes in the area.

Now those homes are sold, and he and his wife live in her late mother's condo.

"Vegas wasn't an option anymore," he said.

DOE employees like Gil were luckier, thanks to preferential hiring for federal positions. According to DOE, three of the project's 184 employees -- 127 of whom worked in Nevada -- were laid off in a "reduction in force." Of the rest, 138 remain employed at DOE, 10 went to other federal agencies and 28 either retired or took a buyout. Four also resigned, while one student appointment was "terminated."

But those hires didn't help Nevada, as the vast majority of DOE employees took new jobs in other states. And most of those who worked at Yucca -- 2,700 before DOE began scaling down in 2009 -- were contracted employees like Henning.

County's unemployment woes

The effect of Yucca's closure on the area's overall job market is, of course, hotly debated.

Opponents of the project say it would have had few jobs even if it stayed open, running with reduced staff while NRC reviewed DOE's license application to build the waste site. Supporters say hundreds of jobs are better than none and take the long-term view, pointing to the balloon of construction jobs that would come with an approved nuclear waste repository.

Statistics also are notoriously slippery when it comes to job creation. The official job count for the Yucca Mountain project comes from DOE's 2008 environmental impact statement on the proposed repository and a rail line that would run from Caliente, Nev., to Yucca.

That report projected an average of about 2,300 employees for the first 30 years, followed by 30 years with an average of 700 employees. The rail project would support an additional 1,695 jobs on average during five years of construction; that number would drop to 280 once the railroad was operational.

But the report also notes that "impacts to employment in Clark and Nye counties from repository-related construction and operations would be small."

That isn't the outlook of Nye County Commissioner Gary Hollis, an outspoken proponent of restarting the Yucca project. His county, which includes Yucca Mountain, has an unemployment rate of around 14 percent, making it one of the worst job markets in Nevada.

Hollis believes a reopened Yucca -- assuming NRC approves its license -- would create 7,000 jobs, a number he gets by figuring that every job at the site would lead to an additional one to two indirect jobs.

He also pointed to the annual payout the county was getting from DOE called Payment Equal to Taxes, which compensates the county for use of the land. In the past, Nye County has gotten as much as $11 million annually; it has used the unrestricted extra cash for everything from new buildings to a health fund.

"The project is a good project," Hollis said in a recent interview. "Not only is it jobs and economic development, but it's a way we can get taxes."

'Clean energy' vs. Yucca

There is little argument that the closure of the Yucca project came at a particularly bad time in Nevada.

The housing market had crumbled, leaving many homeowners with underwater mortgages. Jobs -- especially permanent, high-paying ones -- were scarce. Scientists who had built their career at Yucca Mountain found few opportunities in the same field.

The exception was the Nevada National Security Site (formerly the Nevada Test Site), where some former Yucca employees found a place for their nuclear background. The nuclear testing site employs about 3,379 people, according to the Nevada Commission on Nuclear Projects.

With an expanded mission in the coming years -- including the testing of large-scale solar technologies -- the site may gain as much as 1,500 temporary jobs and 625 permanent jobs in the next 10 years.

One former Yucca employee said he was able to land a job at NNSS about six months after he was laid off from Yucca. But that was after a tumultuous time during which he turned down a job that would have forced his family to move to Washington state, lost his unemployment and separated from his wife.

Still, "getting laid off from [Yucca] did not, in and of itself, end my marriage, which was bad in the first place and had been for a very long time," said the former contracted employee, who asked to remain anonymous because of his current employer's media policy. "Also, I was extremely lucky to have been offered a job even before being laid off, and the consequences that flowed from not accepting that offer are clearly my own fault."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid -- a longtime opponent of a nuclear waste dump at Yucca -- hopes that renewable energy will provide more job opportunities for his home state that are not tied to the nuclear industry.

In March, the Nevada Democrat released a report called "Playing to Win in Clean Energy" that emphasized the need to create more jobs outside the hospitality and mining industries.

The report cited a Brookings Institute study that pegged Nevada's "clean energy job growth" as 5.8 percent between 2003 and 2010. The number of renewable energy projects under construction, Reid said, was larger "than at any other time in Nevada's history."

"Clean economy jobs" total 16,578 and make up 1.5 percent of all jobs in the state, according to the same study. Brookings defined such jobs as those in the economic sector that produce goods and services with an environmental benefit.

In Nye County, for example, SolarReserve LLC received a $737 million loan guarantee from DOE for its Crescent Dunes Solar Energy Project. In a recent press release, the company estimated that 62 percent of almost 100 construction workers are Nevada residents; later this year, the number of employees will peak at 600.

But when it is operational, the project will need about 45 full-time employees, according to the company's application for its tax abatement.

'Third rail' of Nevada politics

For now, the potential for creating new jobs in hard-hit counties surrounding the Yucca Mountain repository is tied up in a string of court cases, state decisions and business proposals.

A federal appeals court has yet to determine whether NRC should be forced to use its remaining funds to continue reviewing DOE's application to build the waste storage site. Even if the court orders the commission to continue its review, Reid and other Nevada lawmakers have vowed to kill the project.

Despite those obstacles, some industry and business groups have floated alternative uses for the site.

A group of five Nevada businessmen in Reno launched a public outreach campaign to shore up support for creating an "energy park" at the Nevada National Security Site, which is adjacent to the Yucca Mountain repository and located about 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

Nevadans 4 Carbon Free Energy is calling for the state to establish a research facility during the next decade at the DOE facility, which was used to test nuclear weapons in the 1950s, to research the reprocessing and recycling of spent nuclear fuel. Concrete casks that would be used to store and transport nuclear waste could also be studied at the site, said Randi Thompson, an adviser for Nevadans 4 Carbon Free Energy.

The group is proposing to use money from the Nuclear Waste Fund to build the research park. Under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, utilities pay fees that are routed into the fund to cover the cost the government would face in disposing of the waste. The pot of money is expected to reach $28 billion by the end of the year.

But Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) said in a May 22 letter that "not only is there no money to be had for such schemes, but even the appearance that Nevada might be willing to accept spent fuel and high-level waste for any reason would have disastrous consequences" for the state's fight against Yucca Mountain.

"The governor needs to pick up the phone and call the DOE and say, 'Let's talk,'" Thompson said. "Nevada has never participated in this process, except to fight it."

Nevada politicians have, however, warmed to non-nuclear proposals.

Reid has also backed a DOE effort to develop a 25-square-mile "solar demonstration zone" on the former nuclear weapons test site. DOE announced the project in 2010 and is using the area to develop technologies that use lenses or mirrors to concentrate solar energy in small areas, generating heat to create steam to produce electricity (E&ENews PM, July 8, 2010).

Nevada Rep. Joe Heck (R) told the Las Vegas Sun in May that he supports the construction of federal government data centers in Yucca Mountain that would be impenetrable underground and protected by restricted airspace.

Last October, the Government Accountability Office said private industry and government officials were interested in up to 30 alternative projects for the site, including using Yucca Mountain as a potential hangar site for predator drones, a training site for first responders in emergency situations, a strategic petroleum reserve for Western states or a lab space for researching highly infectious diseases (Greenwire, Oct. 18, 2011).

But again, GAO pointed to daunting legal, financial and administrative hurdles. Experts interviewed by the federal watchdog said alternative projects would face litigation tied to mining claims, potential jurisdictional fights among three agencies that all oversee the area and limitations from nearby activities related to national security.

A divisive political atmosphere could also throw a wrench in any proposal, Thompson added.

"Yucca Mountain is the third rail of politics in Nevada," she said. "For any politician to come out and say they negotiated on the project is the epitome of death in politics."

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