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Going Nuclear: An Update on Nevada’s Fight to Keep Radioactive Waste Out of the State

For over 60 years, Nevada has been dealing with the fallout over the nation’s love-hate relationship with nuclear technology. From the bad old days of open nuclear weapons tests at the Nevada Test Site (now Nevada National Security Site) to the present-day fight over nuclear waste storage there and at Yucca Mountain, we always seem to get the brunt of it.

Will this dynamic ever change? Maybe. Here’s the latest on the nuclear fight in the courts, in Congress, and on the campaign trail.

So what’s happening in the court?
Nevada National Security Site (NV) – The NNSS (formerly the Nevada Test site) is an extensive outdoor laboratory and national experiment center located in southern Nevada, about 75 miles northwest of Las Vegas. Activities at the site include preparations for the disposition of damaged nuclear weapons, subcritical experiments, criticality experiments, emergency response training, and waste management. While underground testing has not been conducted in many years, the site is maintained in a state of readiness should testing be resumed.

In January, the entire state was shocked to learn that the federal government had secretly moved one-half metric ton of weapons-grade plutonium into the Nevada National Security Site last year, even while the Trump administration was telling federal courts it was merely a proposal and not already underway. Then in July, hot off the heels of back-to-back 6.4 and 7.1 magnitude earthquakes hitting rural San Bernardino County, California, the U.S. Energy Department admitted they sent 32 containers of mislabeled nuclear material to the Nevada National Security Site from 2013 to 2018. 

And yet, despite these developments, the State of Nevada was struggling to advance its court case against what had originally been the Trump administration’s proposal to ship more nuclear waste into the state. That changed yesterday, when U.S. District Judge Miranda Du allowed the state to amend its lawsuit to specifically request that the federal government remove the nuclear materials from the former Nevada Test Site.

This should satisfy the Ninth Circuit Federal Court of Appeals, as the appellate court ruled against the state’s earlier demand to remove the waste because it wasn’t part of the original complaint. However, the legal saga over the secret shipments remains very far from over… As is the political fallout.

Oops, he did it again?
Photo by Gage Skidmore, licensed under Creative Commons, and made available by Wikimedia

At the November 9, 2011, Republican Presidential Debate, then Texas Governor Rick Perry (R) pledged to eliminate three federal agencies as part of his drive to shrink the federal government: The U.S. Department of Education, the Department of Commerce, and… And then, Perry muttered, “I can’t. The third one, I can’t. Sorry. Oops.” 

Minutes later, Perry said the third agency he wanted to eliminate was the Department of Energy. Just over five years later, President Donald Trump named Perry to lead that very Department of Energy, and Perry would proceed to tell the U.S. Senate he regretted his utterings at that November 2011 debate at his January 2017 confirmation hearing.

Photo by Gage Skidmore, licensed under Creative Commons, and made available by Wikimedia

Fast forward to October 2019: Perry’s on his way out. Yet while Perry insists his pending resignation (effective December 1) has nothing to do with Ukraine or the impeachment inquiry, evidence has surfaced that Perry pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy for “reforms in the energy sector”, “reforms” that would have included a natural gas export deal benefiting Florida oil magnate and Republican super-donor Harry Sargeant III and the two of the very Rudy Giuliani adjacent “businessmen”, Igor Fruman and Lev Parnas, who attempted to start a marijuana business here in Nevada while they were apparently funneling Russian money into Republican campaigns here in Nevada and across the nation. 

Trump has tapped Deputy Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette to succeed Perry. While U.S. Senator Catherine Cortez Masto (D) has stated her intent to press Brouillette on whether he will honor Perry’s promise to begin removing the plutonium from the Nevada National Security Site in 2021, state officials are already pessimistic on the prospect of the administration changing course on its policy on sending nuclear waste here regardless of whether or not the state consents.

From the test site to the campaign trail
Photo by Andrew Davey

In May, Rep. Dina Titus (D-Las Vegas) succeeded in preventing any funding to revive the 32-year-old Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository project from inclusion in a House appropriations package. But last month, the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on climate change advanced a policy bill authorizing the revival of the Yucca Mountain project. Though the House and the Senate have thus far allocated no new funding for Yucca, the September House climate subcommittee vote suggests the fight over Yucca and the future of nuclear power in America is far from over.

While it hasn’t always been the “buzziest” issue on the 2020 campaign trail, some of the Democratic presidential candidates have started to address this critical issue. On one end, former Vice President Joe Biden, U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-New Jersey), and tech investor Andrew Yang support the development of new nuclear power projects, meaning they will also have to figure out where to send all this new nuclear waste (thus far, Biden and Booker have said they won’t send it here). On the other end, Senators Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) have both called for the phase-out of nuclear power by 2035 and a more rapid shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy

Photo by Andrew Davey

Somewhere in-between, Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota) supports a moratorium on new nuclear power plants, while Senator Kamala Harris (D-California) stresses she’ll adhere to the standards written into Cortez Masto’s Nuclear Waste Informed Consent Act (which Harris, Warren, Sanders, Booker, and Klobuchar all co-sponsor) and “absolutely” end the federal government’s 32-year-long push to open a nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain. And thus far, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg seems to want to keep nuclear in the nation’s near-term energy mix but hasn’t indicated whether he sees nuclear power as a long-term solution.

Perhaps next year’s presidential election will finally result in some kind of closure for Nevada on this issue that’s plagued this state for over six decades. But if history is any guide, we’ll need to prepare for additional fallout for at least a couple more years to come.

Cover photo by Ken Lund, licensed under Creative Commons, and made available by Wikimedia.

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