The Nuclear Waste Impasse Can Only Be Resolved by the Public

The more I review the Yucca Mountain political boondoggle, the more I am convinced the stalemate will have to be resolved through a grassroots public campaign. At the outset of the Yucca startup, the Department of Energy (DOE) maintained the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management for several years in Las Vegas. It provided tours to the Yucca Mountain facility to familiarize the public with the science and engineering behind the solution. Based on my assessment of the effort, too few people toured the facility to learn about the project.

Politicians Influenced by Casinos

I don’t believe there has ever been significant public opposition to Yucca. Rather, businesses opposed to the project drove resistance through political campaign contributions, because the casino industry believes that Yucca Mountain will kill Nevada’s tourism business.

This idea has no actual merit. To refute the notion, one need only consider the situation in France. Areva receives 250 inquiries annually for public visitations to its nuclear fuel reprocessing center in La Hague. People are interested in nuclear technology and want to learn more about it.

With the casino industry and political structures united against Yucca, the only way to reverse the opposition is through grassroots education. Without an adequate public education crusade, including direct mail, television, and radio campaigns, the public will not gain a sufficient understanding of Yucca’s benefits to promote a platform for open dialogue.

It is reasonably well-accepted that once public opinion reaches a point of agreement, it can and does influence the positions of elected officials, who want to protect their jobs. This is what is required to move the Yucca Mountain quagmire forward. Yucca was one of eight or 10 repository locations evaluated. It may not be the best, but it certainly is reasonably acceptable. That is what the science and engineering study is intended to prove. This proof is forthcoming with the completion of the Yucca Mountain application review process.

People Have Common Sense

The public is sick and tired of unfounded political opposition. Nearly every contention concerning Yucca sited by the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects is expected to be resolved by the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board. It should put to rest these ill-founded contentions.

The state of Nevada has prevented the Yucca Mountain facility from being completed. Because of this, the DOE has been sued by some 45 utility companies, and in the majority of cases, the government has lost these lawsuits and taxpayers are on the hook for what is estimated to be a $30 billion bill. After a while, it becomes irrelevant which side of the fence a person is on. At some point, the government must inject common sense and get on with the program.

This has never been a trivial program and such a contentious opposition by the state of Nevada is definitely egregious to the well-being of this country. I firmly believe that when the public understands the situation, politicians will be replaced.

Over the years, the nuclear industry has commissioned its lobbying group, the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), to develop a public relations program for Yucca Mountain. NEI had problems because lobbyists cannot remain apolitical. It is somewhat of an oxymoron because the politics are the result of politicians.

The industry has never pursued a national education program to promote President Eisenhower’s 1953 Atoms for Peace message. He laid the foundation for the program. It was a message the public badly needed to offset negativity surrounding the use of the atomic bomb. It seems the industry chose to let the DOE handle the education task when both entities should have picked up the gauntlet in support of a grassroots campaign promoting nuclear technology.

Without a unified path for both the DOE and the nuclear industry to follow, the fight for Yucca was left in the hands of Nevada state politicians, who oppose the federal law. The nuclear industry must get behind an effort to educate the public to vote for common sense versus political obstruction. If the industry and its association are not willing to fight for Yucca, public opinion will continue to be overruled by politics.

Rallying Support

There will be no resolution to the Yucca Mountain issue until the nuclear industry, its association, and the DOE are willing to educate the Nevada public about the science, engineering, and common sense behind making Yucca Mountain a workable nuclear repository. The U.S. Nuclear Energy Foundation has been addressing this task in northern Nevada for the past decade. The people of northern Nevada understand the Yucca program, and a majority of them support Yucca.

However, the U.S. Nuclear Energy Foundation has not had the resources to establish a presence in southern Nevada. Clark County is the home of the casino industry, and therein lies the largest battleground. Attempting to unite the public, government agencies, politicians, and the nuclear industry in a cohesive dialogue about the Yucca Mountain repository may well be another oxymoron, but this is what I believe needs to be done.

Gary J. Duarte is director of the U.S. Nuclear Energy Foundation (comments@usnuclearenergy.org).