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“Screw Nevada” Redux? A Brief History of Nevada “Going Nuclear”

Over 30 years ago, Congress passed what’s since become known on this side of the Rocky Mountains as the “Screw Nevada” bill that designates Yucca Mountain as an official repository site for nuclear waste. Some 15 years ago, the state took the federal government to court to halt further work in converting Yucca Mountain into a nuclear waste dump. Nearly 10 years ago, state officials celebrated what appeared to be the end of the road for the Yucca Mountain saga…

Except it wasn’t the end of the road, far from it. And today, we’re learning that the U.S. Department of Energy recently snuck weapons-grade plutonium into the Nevada National Security Site while state officials were suing to keep it out. How did we get here? Let’s review the history of nuclear warfare, and of the war over nuclear materials finding their way here.

How it all began: From Cold War to “hot potato”
Photo by Andrew Davey

During the early days of the Cold War, the U.S. government began testing nuclear weapons at what would become the Nevada Test Site. From 1951 to 1992, the federal government conducted a total of 1,021 nuclear tests here, though the government ceased above-ground testing by the time of the 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. At first it was seen as an exciting novelty, with Las Vegas Strip casinos even using the detonations some 110 miles away to draw more tourists here.

But as medical professionals and the larger public began to learn more about the real danger that “Downwinders” faced from the radiation that resulted from these early nuclear tests, Nevadans’ attitudes began to change. And when other members of Congress introduced legislation to declare Yucca Mountain as an official nuclear waste repository, Nevada’s delegation fought vehemently against it. However because they didn’t have much seniority, a bipartisan majority rushed the “Screw Nevada Bill” to then President Ronald Reagan’s desk in December 1987.

Then freshman Senator Harry Reid (D) voted against the “Screw Nevada Bill”, and he wouldn’t ever forget his colleagues’ rush to drop this radioactive “hot potato” onto his home state. Once he became Majority Leader and his one-time Senate colleague Barack Obama became President, Reid got his revenge in the form of defunding the Yucca Mountain repository project and convincing the Obama administration to abandon previous administrations’ plans to open the nuclear waste dump in 2010.

If Yucca is dead, why is the Test Site seemingly coming back to life?

Reid and other Nevada politicians merrily declared the Yucca Mountain project dead earlier this decade. But when Donald Trump became President, the celebrations ended, the lawsuits began heating up all over again, and the U.S. House even proceeded with a brand new “Screw Nevada Bill” to resume construction of the Yucca Mountain repository. Even as then Senator Dean Heller (R) suggested his relationship with Trump was benefitting Nevada, and even as Trump himself suggested he did not support sending nuclear waste to Nevada last fall, his own budget proposal included funding to revive the Yucca Mountain project.

Yet right around the same time Trump was publicly signaling he would no longer pursue sending nuclear waste to Nevada, his administration was secretly shipping weapons-grade plutonium to the Nevada National Security Site, about 70 miles north of Las Vegas. At the time, the State of Nevada was arguing in a Reno federal courtroom against what was thought to be merely a proposal to ship plutonium here. But in reality, the federal government had already begun moving weapons-grade plutonium here with the intent of sending it to the Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico to produce new nuclear warheads.

There’s so much to unpack with today’s news: One, why did the Trump administration begin shipping weapons-grade plutonium into Nevada last fall while having the federal judge believe she was just hearing a case about a mere proposal to move nuclear materials here? Second, why did the Trump administration begin sending this plutonium here while Trump himself was reassuring Nevada voters he wouldn’t even allow nuclear waste to come here? And finally, why is Trump taking steps towards reviving a nuclear arms race that was thought to be over some 30 years ago?

So what happens next?

As expected, Nevada leaders have quickly and forcefully condemned the Trump administration’s secret shipment of weapons-grade plutonium into this state. In his statement earlier today, Governor Steve Sisolak (D) declared, “[The U.S. Department of Energy] lied to the State of Nevada, misled a federal court, and jeopardized the safety of Nevada’s families and environment. My administration is working with our federal delegation, and we will use the full force of every legal tool available to fight back against the federal government’s reckless disregard for the safety of our state.”

And in her statement, Senator Catherine Cortez Masto (D) demanded answers on how this occurred and why this nuclear material is now here: “Tomorrow, I’ll have representatives of the [U.S. Department of Energy and the National Nuclear Security Administration] in my office to brief me. I’ll be demanding they explain why these agencies ignored a federal court and how this reckless decision was made.” She continued, “The Trump Administration will find that I’ll be shining a bright light on this, as well as any high level effort to bring nuclear waste into our state by reviving Yucca Mountain. The voices of Nevadans must be heard and I’ll be fighting for legislation that makes certain their voices are heard on this issue and this never happens behind the backs of Nevadans again.”

Unlike other nuclear waste storage projects, such as Finland’s Onkalo repository, Yucca Mountain has been America’s pre-selected nuclear waste dump due to 30+ years of “hot potato” politics rather than sound science or a genuine effort to seek informed consent. If anything, this latest development harkens back to the days of atomic testing at the Nevada Test Site when “Downwinders” had no clue of the health risks posed by the atomic blasts. Now that we know the federal government is once again sending nuclear material here, it’s time for the feds to come clean on what they’re really doing here… And it’s long past time for them to truly listen to the people here in Nevada who could be harmed the most by whatever it is they’re doing.

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

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Comments (2)

  1. Michael Santella

    Andrew,

    Is it true that “… Yucca Mountain has been America’s pre-selected nuclear waste dump due to 30+ years of “hot potato” politics rather than sound science or a genuine effort to seek informed consent.”? It certainly seems true that it is a “hot potato” political issue in Nevada. It is so easy to scare people with tales of the dangers of nuclear materials. It is easy for politicians, among others, to capitalize on our current culture of outrage by inflaming us over Yucca Mountain issues rather than taking a view informed by science and critical thinking. I know enough about science to know that there were very sound reasons (remote location on Federal land, stable geology, etc.) for selecting the Yucca Mountain site for a repository. Many aspects of the design, construction, and use of the intended facility are available to the public. Instead of helping to inform us about these things that could allay the fears of many we get overreaction and outrage. It is so easy to do. It wins elections (we’ll protect you!). It gets clicks.

    Why don’t you do some actual investigative reporting about the scientific basis of Yucca Mountain? Let me know if you need some help.

    Lastly, do you think it would be a good idea to ever disclose beyond an essential core staff when and where plutonium or any similarly hazardous material was being shipped?

  2. Managing editor

    The disposal of high-level nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain is based on unsound engineering, limited geological considerations and an incomplete understanding of the properties of spent nuclear fuel.

    The Yucca Mountain repository sits 300 meters below the surface in an unsaturated zone, some 300 meters above the water table. This is thought to be a “dry” repository, as water would be unavailable for the transportation of radionuclides. However, bomb testing in 1963 provided evidence for rapid transport of some water through the unsaturated zones.

    Political interference has limited research to supporting ambiguous and incomplete science. To proceed without a complete scientific understanding of the venture is an irrevocable error.

    The United States is the only country in the world that has pursued the concept of placing a repository in the unsaturated zone.

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