YUCCA MOUNTAIN, Nev. -- From the top of this brown, loaf-shaped ridge about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, there is little sign that this 5,000-foot desert outcropping remains a major battleground in U.S. energy and climate policy.
Twenty-five years of government work and research has been sunk into the parched, sandy soil here, along with at least $9 billion of taxpayers' money spent to carry out Congress' 1987 law requiring that this be the final repository for the nation's nuclear wastes. The goal was to have it up and running in 1998.
Eleven years after that, there is little that is up, and almost nothing is running. Instead, Yucca Mountain has been placed in what the Department of Energy calls "cold standby." Congress cut almost $100 million from its $386 million budget this year, forcing DOE to lay off 500 of its 1,400 workers. The new Obama administration budget proposes to stop funding altogether while a "blue ribbon" panel explores other alternatives for nuclear waste disposal.
Even the ventilation and the lights in the U-shaped, 5-mile tunnel dug into this mountain to trundle in canisters of nuclear waste have been turned off to save money.
"Legally, it's a mess," explained Richard Stewart, a New York University law professor who has closely followed the project. Noting that nuclear power is the nation's largest energy source that does not emit greenhouse gases, Stewart said he worries that a continuing impasse at Yucca Mountain "could chill options for dealing with climate."
It may seem odd that a president who says the nation needs nuclear power pulls back from this project and that a Democrat-led Congress whose leaders want to mobilize against global warming bleeds Yucca Mountain's budget to the point of immobility. But Stewart thinks that much of this can be explained by the peculiar politics here. It doesn't follow party lines or liberal-conservative lines. The politics that governs the nation's nuclear waste repository is determined by state lines.
As Stewart recently explained at a Washington symposium, the politics begins with what he calls "a deep and abiding sense of grievance on the part of Nevada" over the 1987 law. Technically, it was an amendment to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act that made Yucca Mountain the nation's only repository for nuclear waste. Some in Congress and many people in Nevada call it the "screw Nevada bill."
A coup for Sen. Harry Reid, but not a coup de grace
At the time, Nevada had relatively little clout in Congress. Now it has a potent political warrior in Sen. Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader. He has spent much of his career trying to kill Yucca. He set the political stage for the current policy review by helping to push Nevada's Democratic presidential primary to January 2008, just as the candidates were beginning to feel their way. Sensing the rage in Nevada, all the Democrats took a stand against Yucca.
"When I am president, Yucca Mountain will be off the table forever," promised New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. Then-Sen. Obama took a more cautious approach in a letter to the Las Vegas Review-Journal: "After spending billions of dollars on the Yucca Mountain project, there are still significant questions about whether nuclear waste can be safely stored there."
Obama recommended that nuclear wastes remain in the states where it is stored "until we find a safe, long-term disposal solution that is based on sound science." In the meantime, he said, all spending on the Nevada site should be stopped. It was a major coup for Reid. "Obama's president and Yucca Mountain's history," he told reporters on the eve of the president's election.
But Yucca isn't dead yet. It has formidable backing in the House and from probably a majority of members of the Senate. Legally, it remains the nation's only approved long-term nuclear waste storage site.
However, any move to open it would require another law, one transferring land owned by other federal agencies to DOE, which owns only part of the site.
"What we have is a stalemate," explained one nuclear industry lobbyist. The industry doesn't think it has 60 votes to override a Reid-led filibuster. On the other hand, Reid doesn't appear to have the votes to kill Yucca Mountain.
While Congress mulls over the president's budget proposal, the action on Yucca Mountain shifts to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, an independent agency that, under current law, is supposed to spend the next three to four years analyzing a DOE request for an operating license. Dale Klein, chairman of the NRC, recently complained during a conference held by the Council on Foreign Relations that the Senate had held back the funds he needs to do the job.
Klein later elaborated: "The funding issue puts us in a bit of a dilemma. Congress told us to get the job done in three or maybe four years, but we can't follow the law if we don't get the money."
The most-studied site on Earth
While the state of Nevada has allied with a number of anti-nuclear environmental groups to raise questions about Yucca Mountain -- activities that have helped spawn some of the 50 lawsuits challenging the project -- DOE engineers and scientists who have worked on Yucca for years wonder what's left to argue about.
David Merritt, who is in charge of geological explorations here, has the drilling cores from more than 1,300 holes that have been drilled in the mountain, creating what he calls a "library of evidence" that makes Yucca probably the most well-studied piece of land on the planet. His staff is preparing to drill more, if requested by the NRC.
Two large geological faults bracket the proposed burial site, but scientists say most land in the West has fault lines. Water, they say, presents the most pressing threat to the wastes, but studies show the faults are likely to conduct water away from the wastes, rather than toward them. Their conclusions come from years of studying long-term water flows here and in a variety of similar places, including 30,000-year-old caves in southern France where paintings remain intact and an underground second-century city in Kaymakli, Turkey, where there is a similar type of rock.
Keeping spent nuclear fuel intact and isolated for thousands of years is not "technically impossible," asserted William Magwood IV, a physicist who directed nuclear programs in the Department of Energy under both former Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush. He noted that Yucca would be a better and safer long-term storage place than most of the sites where nuclear wastes are currently held. According to DOE, nuclear wastes are sprawled across 39 states in 121 sites, most of them in "temporary" storage pools or cement casks at nuclear power plants.
As things stand, according to DOE, 161 million Americans live within 75 miles of these sites. If the wastes were taken to Yucca, the isolation factor would dramatically increase: No one lives within 5 miles of Yucca Mountain, and the area's few residents live about 15 miles away from the proposed waste site.
"We have to deal with this. It's a federal responsibility," asserted Magwood. He noted that electricity users have paid more than $21 billion into a fund that the Department of Energy is contractually obliged to use to move the wastes away from their communities. "People who have paid for this deserve to have some kind of solution."
Moreover, he added, a number of U.S. allies in Europe and Asia are waiting for the United States to lead the way toward solving the nuclear waste problem. Magwood knows this because as a DOE official he took many of his foreign counterparts on tours of Yucca Mountain.
"They had an experience similar to what I have. You go to the top of the mountain, and you realize that you're really in the middle of nowhere. They all wished they had some kind of desolate area like this and wonder why we're having this argument."
An expensive breach of contract
Edward Sproat III, a nuclear engineer who ran DOE's radioactive waste management program under the last Bush administration, pointed out that the Obama administration will find it expensive to abandon Yucca. A federal court has already held that the United States has breached its obligation to remove the wastes from power plants. By 2020, Sproat calculates, the nation may face as much as $11 billion in damages for the failure. Unless the case is resolved, the United States might also have to give the $21 billion in the waste removal fund back, somehow, to electricity users.
"Senators and representatives from 39 states [where the wastes are currently stored] aren't going to be happy," warned Sproat. He thinks the Obama administration will discover that the least expensive and most politically attractive solution will be to leave Yucca's acceptability up to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. It probably won't reach a decision until the president's second term, assuming he is re-elected.
While there are people in the Obama administration and in Congress who want to appoint a blue-ribbon commission to study Yucca against alternatives, old-timers regard this as reopening Pandora's box. After the Carter administration formed an "Interagency Review Group" to conduct a search for potential repository sites in 1978, the Department of Energy narrowed it down to nine candidates.
There was Yucca Mountain in Nevada -- part of the sprawling Nevada Test Site, where underground nuclear weapons tests once rattled the glassware in Las Vegas bars. Then there were sites in Louisiana, two in Mississippi, two in Texas, two in Utah and one in the state of Washington.
During the Reagan administration, to ease future problems in transporting the waste, Congress agreed that a second waste repository would have to be located somewhere in the East.
The options triggered a huge NIMBY -- or "not in my backyard" -- fight. Promising sites in the East, which is more thickly populated with Congress members, had a way of falling off the list. They included sites in Maine, Vermont, Connecticut, New York and Delaware. Finally, only a site in South Carolina was left for consideration, and a cleverly worded amendment eliminated that in 1987.
In the West, choices narrowed down to three sites, recalled former Sen. Bennett Johnston of Louisiana, who was in the midst of the NIMBY wrestling. DOE ranked Yucca Mountain the most acceptable, followed by a salt dome in Deaf Smith County on the western edge of the Texas panhandle and a site on the Hanford Reservation in Washington.
Another round of political NIMBY?
In the House-Senate conference committee meeting that picked Yucca, Johnston, a conservative Democrat, said he wanted DOE to select the finalist. But the matter was settled by two of the most powerful Democrats then in Congress: Jim Wright Jr. (D-Texas), the speaker of the House, and Tom Foley (D-Wash.), the House majority leader. They vehemently wanted it out of their states.
"The politics of the situation was that they had the power," recalled Johnston, who is currently a Washington lobbyist. "Unfortunately, some people still give me credit for the 'screw Nevada bill.'"
In the face of the dogged opposition of Sen. Reid and the Obama administration's interest in looking for alternatives to Yucca, this process could begin again. In December, DOE issued a report predicting that there will be 34 new nuclear reactors seeking licensing approval by 2010. It suggests that Congress either increase the legal capacity for waste storage in Yucca Mountain or renew the hunt for a second site. The report notes that new research shows that "all states in the contiguous United States have a potential area that could be considered for the second repository."
The report states that by 2010, the nation's nuclear reactors will have accumulated enough waste to completely fill Yucca Mountain, as currently planned. Carrying on the 20-year tradition of deferring nuclear waste disposal is also an option, the report says, but it warns that "each year a decision is deferred the Federal Government will incur additional financial liabilities."
Johnston -- who said he doesn't represent nuclear interests -- thinks it would be "silly" to stop the current nuclear waste program. "To think that they're going to go back and study all the things we studied before. We looked into everything, even sending it into outer space and burying it in the ocean." He thinks the best remedy would be to designate Yucca as the site for "monitored and retrievable storage for nuclear wastes," looking forward to the day when technology provides a way that part of the waste could be removed and recycled as new nuclear fuel.
"Whether this would make a difference in their [Nevada's] opposition, I don't know, " added Johnston. "It has gotten rather irrational. Everyone assumes it [the waste] is going to poison the whole state."
Alters the information on population in the vicinity of the proposed waste repository at Yucca Mountain and the temporary storage facilities where waste is now kept. An earlier version of this story incorrectly noted a higher concentration of people in these areas.
Want to read more stories like this?
E&E is the leading source for comprehensive, daily coverage of environmental and energy politics and policy.
Click here to start a free trial to E&E -- the best way to track policy and markets.