The federal government’s campaign to put a nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain in Nevada is in trouble, having encountered political and legal setbacks during the last year that have raised questions about when and even if the project will go forward.
The state has stunned federal officials with its tenacity, legal skill and evolving political acumen, scoring key victories in federal court and in Congress that have repeatedly stalled the project 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
When Congress selected Nevada in the 1980s as the proposed dump site for 70,000 metric tons of highly radioactive waste, the state lacked the political clout and economic power to stop the effort -- one of the most scientifically complex and costly engineering projects in history.
But what Congress could not have foreseen was the huge economic, demographic and political changes that would sweep over Nevada and particularly Las Vegas, now the nation’s fastest growing city and an economic juggernaut in the Southwest. The changes have made the state a more effective and powerful opponent than anybody anticipated.
Opposition has come from every level of Nevada government: Local utility managers turned off the federal project’s water supply. Gov. Kenny Guinn issued a veto of the project. Atty. Gen. Brian Sandoval has tied up the project in the courts. Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman threatened to arrest anybody carrying out the plan on his turf.
But the most prominent symbol of the state’s growing power is Sen. Harry Reid, selected late last year as Senate minority leader and an ardent opponent of the dump. Reid has impressed even his critics with political maneuvers that have eviscerated the Energy Department’s budget for Yucca Mountain.
“The Department of Energy has no credibility here in the state of Nevada,” Reid said in a recent interview.
In late November, Reid engineered the appointment of Greg Jaczko to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which is in charge of licensing the nuclear dump. To broker the deal on Jaczko, a physicist on Reid’s staff, the senator held up a number of Bush administration nominations.
“We have thrown up everything humanly possible to block Yucca Mountain, but Harry Reid is going to be the difference now,” said Billy Vassiliadis, a top political operative in Nevada who has produced the advertising for the state’s tourism and gaming industry.
Last year, the state won its biggest legal victory when a federal appeals court ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency’s standard for radiation emissions from the dump violated federal law. Now, instead of ensuring public safety for 10,000 years, peak radiation emissions must be safe over the life of the dump, potentially 1 million years.
Whether such health standards can be met is unknown. EPA officials say they will propose a new standard this year, though outside experts say it could take years to finalize a rule. Until then, the Energy Department has no hope of getting a license for the dump.
As a result, Energy officials say the project to safely bury nuclear waste from power plants and bomb production will be delayed two more years beyond the projected June 2010 startup. Even before the latest setback, the effort was running 12 years behind its original schedule.
The goal is to use the geology of the mountain and highly engineered containers to safely isolate radioactive waste, now stored at 131 sites across the country.
So, far, the project has cost $8 billion and could end up costing an estimated $100 billion, rivaling the International Space Station’s price tag.
The program suffered another setback Friday when its director, Margaret Chu, resigned, citing “personal circumstances.” The resignation came less than two weeks after Samuel Bodman was confirmed as Energy secretary and assured Congress he was “focused” on moving Yucca Mountain along faster, something Chu was not able to accomplish.
“Without a miracle of some sort, it is all over,” said Bob Loux, executive director of the Nevada Office for Nuclear Projects, the state’s lead agency that deals with Yucca Mountain. Other state officials echo that conclusion.
Even Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M..), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which oversees the Energy Department’s budget, acknowledges political problems.
“It is very hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.
In a recent book, Domenici argued for an aggressive new era of nuclear power, calling it critical for the nation’s economic future as natural gas prices rise and concerns grow about pollution from coal-fired plants. But without a solution to the nuclear waste problem, he said, utilities are unlikely to build new nuclear plants.
The political problems of the dump are highlighted by the Energy Department’s fiscal 2006 budget released this month, which includes only $650 million for the project. That is half of earlier funding projections for the year. Nonetheless, Energy officials are publicly upbeat.
“In my view, there are a lot of positive things going on,” said Ted Garrish, deputy director of the program at the Energy Department. The courts, for example, did not accept Nevada’s argument that the whole project is unconstitutional, he said.
The federal government is in no position to abandon Yucca Mountain, given its decades-old promise to the nuclear power industry to find a place for nuclear waste. The utility industry has 66 pending lawsuits against the Energy Department for failing to abide by its agreements. By some estimates, the federal government could bear penalties and costs of $60 billion if Yucca Mountain is never built, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute, a trade group representing the industry.
Already, utilities have won settlements of nearly $100 million from the Energy Department for its failure to open the dump by the original 1998 deadline, according to the institute.
“Utilities have paid $24 billion to the federal government, collected through electric bills, to dispose of this waste,” said Rod McCullum, a senior project manager at the institute. “If you live in an area served by nuclear power plants, a portion of your bill went to the federal government for Yucca Mountain.”
But another powerful and politically savvy industry -- the Las Vegas gaming industry -- hates Yucca Mountain.
When the site was first considered in the early 1980s and then selected as the single possible site for the dump in 1987, Las Vegas was a pale shadow of what it is today.
Few people anticipated the audacious growth that would occur at the gambling mecca.
More than a dozen super-sized resorts, starting with the Mirage, have opened since 1987, making the Strip home to eight of the world’s 10 largest hotels. Gaming revenue has soared fourfold to more than $8 billion annually, while Clark County’s population has tripled to 1.7 million. The county is gaining 4,000 residents per month. The convention and gaming industry has become an economic powerhouse on a national level.
The casinos have played a low-key but powerful role in keeping state and local leaders firmly opposed to Yucca Mountain. A Clark County Commission study in 2001 said that every one of 14 top gaming executives in the city opposed the Yucca Mountain project and warned of potentially serious loss of business if any kind of radioactive incident occurred.
“I am not worried until there is an accident,” Alan M. Feldman, senior vice president at MGM Mirage, said in an interview. “When the accident does happen, it won’t be small, it will not be short-term and it may be irreversible. Twenty years ago, the federal government made a terrible mistake.”
Robert Stewart, senior vice president at Caesars Entertainment, said: “You would be hard pressed to find anybody in the gaming industry who is not opposed to siting a nuclear dump at Yucca Mountain.”
Although Nevada brings a lot to the battle, it gets little outside help. Except for in California, other western political leaders, such as Domenici, have supported the dump. And many Democrats see the dump as a solution to their own environmental problems with nuclear waste.
In a key procedural vote in 2002, 16 Senate Democrats voted for the dump, including Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina and Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico.
The 2002 vote was taken to override a veto of the dump issued by Guinn, Nevada’s Republican governor, a procedure set up under federal law. Reid said he knew he did not have the votes to block the veto, but that was before the soft-spoken parliamentary expert became Senate minority leader.
Now, even Republicans acknowledge that Reid has the votes and the political acumen to block Yucca Mountain legislation. It is one reason the Bush administration has not attempted to get legislation to nullify last year’s court setback to the dump.
“Putting Harry there is like a human stop sign,” said Feldman, the casino executive.
Ironically, Yucca Mountain has attracted only sporadic interest from major national environmental groups, according to the grass-roots organizations in Nevada fighting the project.
Judy Treichel, executive director of the Nevada Nuclear Waste Task Force, said she had never received money from major East Coast nonprofit foundations that often fund environmental battles. Treichel runs her organization from her condo behind the flashing marquee of the Rio casino, just off the Strip. She raises about $30,000 annually for the effort.
“Most of the foundations are totally against gambling and totally against everything that Las Vegas stands for,” Treichel said. “So, why would they give their money to save Las Vegas?”
Las Vegas’ mayor echoes the thought. “We were considered the armpit of the world at that time. They thought Nevada was a wasteland and Nevada was a throwaway,” Goodman said, referring to the year Congress voted to create Yucca Mountain. “What would be more normal than putting nuclear waste in Las Vegas?”
But judgments made in 1987 lack validity today, Goodman said.
“Nobody could have foreseen what we have become,” he said. “Las Vegas is unique, a place that symbolizes America. You are free to express yourself here. You are free to go to the cusp of what is legal. You are free to have fun. This dump could end all of that.”
Goodman and the City Council passed a law banning shipments of nuclear waste through the city, a measure the federal government has not bothered testing. But Goodman vows to personally block any trucks on the freeway that attempt to transport waste through his city.
Meanwhile, Sandoval, the state’s Republican attorney general, is pushing two additional lawsuits against the Energy Department, one charging that it shortchanged Nevada in payments and the second challenging the plan to build a rail line from the state border to the dump site.
“We term this project a political mugging,” Sandoval said. “We were politically powerless to put up a meaningful opposition at the time. That is why we always sought the courts. I see Yucca Mountain dead as a legal outcome.”
Nevada officials argue that the nation should stop to reconsider the entire idea of burying nuclear waste. Instead, they say, the waste should be stored above ground for the next 100 years until an advanced society with greater intellect and resources knows how to better handle the problem. Energy Department officials say such a plan represents a huge long-term environmental risk at waste storage sites, many close to waterways and major cities.
Michael Voegele, a senior scientist at the project, has heard the arguments for more than 25 years during a career dedicated to building the dump -- a span that has covered the tenure of seven Energy secretaries.
Voegele said the state’s scientific arguments -- that because of flaws in the repository’s design, the cylinders will corrode well before 10,000 years and contaminate groundwater -- lack credibility and have been largely rejected by an independent technical review board set up by Congress. He firmly believes that the science supports the safety of the dump. But even Voegele acknowledges that Congress cut short research when it voted in 1987 to consider only Yucca Mountain.
“The technical people were caught completely unaware,” he said. “We were dumbfounded. After all of the work we had done, Congress said, ‘No, we are going to act on a different basis.’ ”
Nonetheless, he rejects the dire predictions about how a dump could scare away tourists.
“Have you ever been in a casino that wasn’t dense with smoke?” Voegele asks. “They have absolutely no concern for health risks. They put their well-being on the line at the gambling table. Are you going to tell me they won’t come to Las Vegas because a truck turned over 100 miles away?”