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Sunrise at Yucca Mountain (AP photo)

A campaign threat to the nuclear power industry

ASK THIS | January 18, 2008

If a Democrat wins the presidency—and if campaign promises count—it may be time to write the obituary for Nevada's Yucca Mountain nuclear waste site. What happens then to the renewed call for nuclear power in the U.S.?

By Joseph Davis

The top three Democratic presidential candidates, Clinton, Obama, and Edwards tussled before the Jan. 19 Nevada caucus over who was more opposed to the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository. The fuss has importance as more than just campaign mud-wrestling.

It may be a sign that it is finally time to write an obituary for the Yucca Mountain plan – and a sign that the industry-ballyhooed "renaissance" of commercial nuclear electric power in the U.S. is headed for trouble – or for a train-wreck.

Being against Yucca Mountain is a pretty good way to get elected in Nevada. At the MSNBC debate in Las Vegas Jan. 15, the three leading Democrats contended over which of them had been against Yucca Mountain earliest and most strongly. Whichever Democrat is nominated, Vegas oddsmakers might well favor that person to win the White House in November, and he or she would presumably be expected to live up to the campaign rhetoric by killing Yucca Mountain..

The cloud over Yucca Mountain's future is much darker than that. Not only will the likely president want it dead, but also the Majority Leader of the Senate, Nevada Democrat Harry Reid, who has made a career opposing Yucca Mountain and has used his agenda-setting clout against it. The one-two punch of a president and a Senate leader may be the knockout.

On Jan. 8, the Associated Press reported further Energy Department cutbacks in the contract staff working on Yucca Mountain – from a peak of about 250 workers in 2004-2005 to a skeleton crew of about 15 caretakers today. That's because Congress (at Reid's urging) has drastically cut the budget for the repository.

The director of the Yucca Mountain project, Edward Sproat, told Las Vegas Sun reporter Lisa Mascaro that he is now unsure he can meet a June 2008 target for a license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Any later, and the NRC would be unlikely to act on it before the Bush administration left office and the NRC changed hands. Two of the five NRC seats are vacant right now, which could magnify the leverage of the next administration.

The original idea, under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act and other laws, was to pick a site for nuclear waste disposal based purely on scientific criteria – finding a rock formation to contain waste that would remain highly radioactive for tens or hundreds of thousands of years. But Yucca was born of politics, not science, back in 1987, when Congress told scientists they could pick any site they thought best – as long as it was Yucca Mountain. Nevada never agreed. Some 20 years later, after billions of dollars of study, the Energy Department is not much closer to making an air-tight scientific case.

This year, politics may be the project's final undoing.

Since the Jan. 15 debate, Clinton and Obama have continued to clash over the Yucca issue in radio ads, with Clinton accusing Obama of ties to the nuclear industry and the Obama camp saying that was unfair

In Nevada, neither candidate, Clinton or Obama, is talking much about the fact that both have expressed willingness to consider expanding commercial nuclear power in the U.S.


Our "Ask This" questions might first go to the candidates themselves. But they could also be asked of Congress members, Energy Department officials, utility and nuclear industry leaders, and environmentalists.

Q. How specifically do Democratic candidates propose stopping Yucca Mountain?

Q.  How do any possible GOP supporters of the repository plan to resuscitate it?

Q. What is their proposed alternative to Yucca Mountain?

Q. What state would it be sited in?

Q. If there's no place to put spent fuel and other waste, should the U.S. start licensing new nuclear power plants?

Q. If not, how do they propose responding to the industry push for new plants?

Q. Will the Energy Department submit an application for Yucca Mountain to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission by its June 2008 target? And how long will NRC take to act on it?

Q. Will the current Nuclear Regulatory Commission irrevocably approve the start of a new generation of plants before George Bush leaves the White House?

Q. Will President Bush try to fill the two vacancies on the 5-seat NRC before leaving office? And how will Congress respond?

Q. Who might the next president appoint to the NRC?

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