What to do with nuclear waste is the perpetually unsolved question for the industry. Right now, it’s stored on-site at 100-plus reactors nationwide in temporary storage sites that have already served a lot longer than ever intended. In the early 1980s, the government identified nine sites as potential national nuclear waste dumps. By 1987, Yucca Mountain was for all intents and purposes the designated winner. It’s a desolate site in the Nevada desert, but it’s within 100 miles of a wonderland of American anthropology that includes Area 51 , the Nevada Nuclear Weapons Test Site , legal brothels , and the Liberace Museum and Gift Shop in Vegas.
But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid worries that a nuclear waste dump would forever impair the dignity of his home state. He’s locked arms with other home-state politicians of both parties to keep Yucca Mountain closed forever. In early March, the Obama administration made it much more likely that Reid will win his fight by cutting off most funding for the repository. More than $10 billion has been spent on studying the waste repository to date, and the nuclear industry has paid out more than twice that much, and has sued the DOE to recover the money they’ve put into a trust fund for building a storage site.
What would be dumped 100 miles north of Las Vegas would have to stay 100 miles north of Las Vegas for at least 1,000 years. To keep on the safe side, the U.S. Department of Energy authorized one of the creepiest projects in federal history: The creation of pictographs -- picture-based signs that would warn future visitors (human or otherwise) away from the site for the next 10,000 years. Nuke industry studies have sought to show that Yucca Mountain’s geology would provide for such safe storage, but studies not bankrolled by the industry have come to much more pessimistic conclusions. Harry Reid has called the studies advocating Yucca Mountain as a nuke graveyard as “ misinformation and voodoo science .”
Most environmentalists will be pleased to know that Yucca Mountain is a dead issue as long as Reid, Obama, and the Democrats are in power. Energy Secretary Stephen Chu confirmed that Yucca was off the table at a March 5th Senate hearing . But most environmentalists should acknowledge that this has nothing to do with the safety of nukes, or the wisdom of storing radioactive waste at Yucca Mountain for millennia. It’s home state politics.
Nuke waste isn’t all that Harry Reid wants to keep away from Nevada. There’s something else that has nothing to do with either science or good government.
The 1872 Mining Law is the 19th century’s gift to 21st century bad government. U.S. mining interests can still go on to most federal land (85% of Nevada is federally-managed) and stake a mining claim for about the price of a large bag of Doritos per acre per year. The $5 price hasn’t been altered since Ulysses S. Grant signed the law. Foreign mining companies can get in on the act too, simply by creating a U.S. shell company. And cleaning up the mess? That’s the taxpayers’ problem, like the atrocious Superfund site left behind at a Summitville, CO gold mine .
Summitville had been in operation for more than a century when, in the 1980s, the mine switched over to the heap-leach process : Hard-to-extract gold is stripped free from other rocks by bathing it in cyanide or other toxic metals. The Summitville mine waste, highly acidic and loaded with cyanide, was stored in holding ponds that gave way, poisoning the Alamosa River. A quarter century and nearly a quarter-billion dollars later, the cleanup continues.
Hard rock miners -- gold, silver, copper, platinum -- cash in on the law. The remote mining towns that dot Harry Reid’s state live or die on success of the mines. As detailed by Josh Harkinson in the March/April issue of Mother Jones , Reid -- the son of a gold mining family -- will not let reform happen. Public lands mining for more than five bucks a year per acre means mining jobs leave the United States. So for the foreseeable future, much of the land America stole from the Indians will still be available for a second round of theft by the mining industry.
The Senate Majority Leader will have a lot to say about what the U.S. can offer for relief from climate change, so it’s probably a good thing that Reid doesn’t come from a coal state. Not like Nick Rahall , the Democrats’ Chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee. Following the disastrous December 2008 coal ash spill in Tennessee , Rahall is a late convert to some sort of federal regulation over the toxic byproducts of coal burning. He opposed regulating coal ash during his previous 32 years in Congress, and is still poised to protect the mines and leveled mountains of his southern West Virginia. Anyone who expects fast and easy action on climate issues should remember that home-state rules are still in play, and the coal industry covers a multitude of states.
Peter Dykstra is the former executive producer of CNN's Science, Tech and Weather Unit. He writes three columns for MNN: Media Mayhem on Mondays, Political Habitat on Wednesdays, and Green States on Fridays. (Yes, he writes a lot.)