In 2010, when the Department of Energy correctly made the decision to put an end to the misguided Yucca Mountain project, it did so after decades of debate and extensive study with little to show for it except $15 billion wasted and a big hole in the side of a mountain. According to the Government Accountability Office, had the project been completed, it would have cost more than $80 billion just for initial construction.
Those figures do not even take into account the costs of transporting 77,000 metric tons of highly radioactive nuclear waste thousands of miles across the country, through nearly every state and congressional district in the Union. Nor does the enormous cost estimate include the significant security expenditures required to protect the lethal contents of a Yucca Mountain repository in perpetuity and keep it from falling into the hands of those seeking to cause our nation harm.
What started decades ago as a law authorizing the study and selection of two geological depositories suitable for the permanent storage of spent nuclear fuel transformed into politics at its worst. With the passage of the “Screw Nevada” bill in 1987, which designated Yucca Mountain as the sole repository for the nation’s nuclear waste prior to completion of adequate scientific evaluation, the goal shifted from how to find the best site for storage to how to make the Yucca site adequate. As the years passed, billions of dollars were wasted, and the misguided Yucca project changed from being a geologic depository to a man-made structure with barriers erected to attempt to mitigate the tectonic fault lines that run directly under the mountain, threatening the geohydrology of the area with leaking radioactive waste. The original plan was ill-conceived, and studies conducted over the past few decades clearly illustrate the dangers and costs associated with the project.
So why has Yucca Mountain remained the focus for so long? The flame of Yucca was lit by politicians who wanted to send the radioactive waste created by their own communities to a state that does not have a single nuclear power plant and, at the time, had little political clout to prevent it from becoming the nation’s waste dump.
Yucca Mountain is just over an hour away from fabulous Las Vegas. When nuclear bomb tests were being conducted in the shadow of the mountain in the 1950s and ’60s, you could see the signature mushroom clouds from the roofs of downtown Las Vegas casinos. As the “Screw Nevada” bill was signed into law in the 1980s, the population of Southern Nevada was just over half a million people. Now the region is home to more than 2 million residents, and every year welcomes 41 million visitors to the hotels, casinos and restaurants that line the world-famous Las Vegas Strip, as well as the Lake Mead, Red Rock National Conservation Area, Tule Springs archeological site, Desert Wildlife Refuge and numerous other attractions that make southern Nevada one of the world’s most visited tourist destinations.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., takes a selfie with his cut-out head during the Hoops for Youth 16th annual charity basketball game held at George Washington University's Smith Center, September 8, 2014. The members of Congress team beat the lobbyist team 46-40. Buy photo here.