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Nevada Today

Nevada Today is a nonpartisan, independently owned and operated site dedicated to providing up-to-date news and smart analysis on the issues that impact Nevada's communities and businesses.

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Going Nuclear: What’s Going on at the Nevada National Security Site, Why Is Yucca Mountain Still Up for Debate, and Why Does Any of This Matter?

Did you feel it? I didn’t, as I was out of town when it happened. But for everyone who was in Southern Nevada during the Fourth of July weekend, they felt not one, but two back-to-back major earthquakes along with a series of foreshocks and aftershocks. 

The recent earthquakes have Nevadans asking many questions on just how prepared we truly are for “The Big One”… Or even, for that matter, future earthquakes at similar magnitudes that may occur even closer to home. And yes, quite a few of these questions are about the ongoing fight over bringing more nuclear waste to such a seismically active region.

Talk about toxic waste
Photo by Ken Lund, licensed under Creative Commons, and made available by Wikimedia

In January, we first learned of the Trump administration’s secret shipment of weapons-grade plutonium to the Nevada National Security Site (formerly known as the Nevada Test Site) while the State of Nevada was suing to keep such waste out of here. After three months of Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s attempts to deflect blame, he and the White House ultimately agreed to a deal brokered by U.S. Senator Catherine Cortez Masto (D) wherein the federal government will begin shipping out the secretly-shipped-in plutonium in 2021 and stop bringing in any new nuclear material from South Carolina (where the federal government is under a court order to remove one metric ton of weapons-grade plutonium from there).

Of course, this happened while the Trump administration was pushing to revive the long-stalled Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository about 100 miles from Las Vegas. Yet despite the White House’s and top Congressional Republicans’ push to make Yucca happen again, Rep. Dina Titus (D-Las Vegas) led a bipartisan coalition to defeat an attempt to insert funding to revive the Yucca Mountain project into the U.S. House’s appropriations package in May.

So problem solved? Not even close: Last week the Energy Department admitted to Governor Steve Sisolak (D) that they sent 32 containers of potentially dangerous nuclear material to the Nevada National Security Site from 2013 to 2018, but hardly anyone realized what was being sent our way because it was mislabeled as “low-level radioactive waste”. Rep. Steven Horsford (D-North Las Vegas), whose district (NV-04) includes both the Nevada National Security Site and Yucca Mountain, has called for Perry’s resignation. And while he hasn’t (yet?) gone that far, even Rep. Mark Amodei (R-Carson City) has publicly voiced his frustration with the White House’s attempts to avoid coming clean on this increasingly sordid story of toxic waste in the Silver State.

And then, we felt the earth moving under our feet

This sordid story has shifted even more this month, thanks to the ground shifting underneath us. On July 4, a magnitude 6.4 earthquake centered near Searles Valley in northwest San Bernardino County, California, was felt from Los Angeles all the way to Las Vegas. On July 5, a magnitude 7.1 earthquake that also emanated from the Searles Valley region was felt all the way from Sacramento to San Diego (and again, Las Vegas). There were no deaths reported in California, but a Pahrump man found dead by Nye County Sheriffs under his Jeep last week may have been killed by the one of the earthquakes knocking the Jeep off its jacks.

While the earthquakes have caused extensive damage in areas closest to their epicenters, such as Trona and Ridgecrest, larger urban areas in California and Nevada were mostly spared. But if a similarly sized earthquake were to occur even closer to us, is the third most seismically active state (after California and Alaska) truly prepared for it? And considering how Yucca Mountain and the Nevada National Security Site happen to lie in such a seismically active region, can the federal government truly guarantee “safe storage” of nuclear waste here?

In light of the recent earthquakes, Sisolak and several in Nevada’s Congressional delegation sent a letter to Perry demanding an end to the White House’s campaign to revive the Yucca Mountain project and threatening further legal action if President Donald Trump ever attempts to circumvent Congress to expedite the development of a nuclear waste dump at Yucca.

Let’s zoom out some more: Is “going nuclear” really the right answer?

Photo by KyleandMelissa22, licensed under Creative Commons, and made available by Wikipedia

With the ongoing threats of potential future development at Yucca Mountain and more “accidental” shipments of nuclear waste to other parts of the state, we have to ask: How do we handle nuclear waste? This is an integral question to the ongoing conversation about nuclear power and whether it should be a part of the nation’s energy future. 

While nuclear power enthusiasts have blamed the fight over Yucca Mountain for the nation’s failure thus far to implement a national solution for the growing stockpiles of nuclear waste, they’ve yet to explain why electricity that produces this radioactive waste should be considered “clean power”. And even when looking at the power plants themselves, the Trump administration is joining forces with the nuclear industry to roll back safety standards that may lower these companies’ operating costs but may also risk public safety. 

The nuclear industry may spin this rollback of safety standards as “not a big deal”, but millions of people in Ukraine, Belarus, and Japan who have personal experience with this issue beg to differ. What is the plan to prevent the next Chernobyl, Fukushima Daiichi, or even Three Mile Island for that matter? Keep this in mind next time we hear nuclear power being promoted as “clean energy”, and keep this in mind as the Nevada and the nation continue to wrestle over Yucca Mountain and what to do with all this dirty radioactive waste.

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