|Mountain States Political Report - Nuclear Waste|
Oct. 14, 2002 -- Westerners have long grappled with the issue of nuclear material in their midst. Since the early days of the nuclear age, sites in the Western states have been used to develop, test and store the building components and byproducts of atomic reactions powerful enough to both light and destroy entire cities.
This election cycle, the region's citizens and politicians must again make some key decisions on the issue.
On July 9, the Senate voted to override Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn's veto of the Bush administration's designation of Yucca Mountain, Nevada as a "permanent" storage site for nuclear waste. The Senate vote was made over the protests of both Nevada senators, Republican John Ensign and Democrat Harry Reid. Reid has pledged to block funding for the project -- and has so far been successful.
Energy Daily, an industry trade journal, reported on Oct. 8 that Department of Energy officials are worried that if the Democrats retain control of the Senate, the project will be jeopardy. Other means of opposing the project have also been employed by Nevada officials.
In September, Nevada's attorney general, Frankie Sue Del Papa accused the government of holding unlawful secret planning meetings on the Yucca Mountain project, and the state has several lawsuits pending against the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the federal agency charged with regulating the use and storage of nuclear material in the United States. Any one of the lawsuits has the potential to derail the project.
The Yucca Mountain decision also raises the issue of what to do about "temporary" waste storage sites that are to be used while the Nevada facility is being completed. Skull Valley, a site in Utah located on the tribal lands of the Goshute Indians, may be the first such facility to go on-line.
The fate of the Skull Valley and Yucca Mountain sites are inexorably intertwined. Yucca Mountain was originally slated to be operational by 1998. Now the government has set it sites on the year 2010, but may not make that deadline if fierce opposition remains the norm. Meanwhile, nuclear waste has already begun to pile up and both the industry and the Energy Department are eyeing the Skull Valley site as their first possible means of relief.
But Gov. Mike Leavitt has pledged to fight the location facility in Utah, telling Goshute tribal leaders in 1996 that the site would open "over my dead body." Various legal battles are being waged in court and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Bureau of Indian Affairs have been petitioned by both Utah citizens groups and members of the Goshute tribe who don't agree that the potential financial boon to the tribe will be worth opening up their traditional lands to nuclear storage.
Pressure to find an answer to the nation's complicated nuclear waste problem is sure to rise in coming years. Nuclear technology companies who are encouraged by the government's goals for the Yucca Mountain facility are accelerating plans to build more nuclear power plants in the United States, ushering in what participants in an industry conclave called a "nuclear renaissance," the Las Vegas Sun reported on Sept. 14.
Proponents of nuclear energy claim that more plants will mean a cleaner environment as nuclear plants replace those that rely on fossil fuels. Opponents point to public health and safety concerns and the question of how the country will deal with more nuclear waste.
A government timeline shows that studies of the Yucca Mountain site began by congressional decree in 1982. The site is expected to be operational by 2010 and is slated to be closed and decommissioned between 2110 and 2116 -- a century after the first shipment of waste has been stored there.
A NUCLEAR HISTORY IN THE WEST
Westerners have been a part of the history of nuclear energy development since its beginning. The famed "Manhattan Project," the development of the atom bombs used against Japan during World War II, came to fruition in the high desert town of Los Alamos, New Mexico.
On July 16, 1945, the U.S. conducted the world's first nuclear test explosion near Alamogordo, New Mexico. Called the "Trinity" test, it exploded with a force equivalent to 18,000 tons of TNT. A national lab for nuclear research was established and still operates at Los Alamos, and a range in the Nevada desert was used to test nuclear weapons throughout the Cold War.
Uranium, one of the elements that can be used to create nuclear reactions, was dug out of the earth in mines across the West.
GOVERNMENT REGULATION OF NUCLEAR MATERIAL
As the government's use of nuclear material increased so did the desire to safely regulate it. On August 1, 1946 President Truman signed the Atomic Energy Act, establishing the Atomic Energy Commission. The AEC replaced the Manhattan Project, regulating nuclear weapons, nuclear testing and peacetime applications like nuclear power.
The act placed further development of nuclear technology under civilian, not military, control. In 1947 the commission first investigated the possibility of peaceful uses of atomic energy, issuing a report the following year. The agency announced the selection of a site in Idaho for the National Reactor Testing Station in 1949.
A quarter-century later, the Energy Reorganization Act divided Atomic Energy Commission functions between two new agencies -- the Energy Research and Development Administration, to carry out research and development, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, to regulate nuclear power.
PUBLIC HEALTH AND SAFETY CONCERNS
Danger to public health has been a key issue in the nuclear debate nearly since the beginning of atomic energy experimentation in the United States. In 1951, the U.S. government began above-ground testing of nuclear bombs at the Nevada Test Site, north of Las Vegas.
Thousands of Utahns and Nevadans were exposed to high levels of radioactive fallout during a dozen years of open air testing. Many cancer victims from the region have long blamed the fallout for their illnesses.
In 1990, Congress passed the Radioactive Exposure Compensation Act to compensate downwinders and uranium mine and mill workers harmed by radiation. Congress expanded compensation to additional miners and mill workers in 2001.
The program has been hampered by lack of funding, however, and some claimants have had to accept government IOU's while supplemental funding is debated. A 2002 study prepared by the National Cancer Institute and the Centers for Disease Control estimates that "11,000 people living in the United States after 1951 have died from cancer caused by radioactive fallout from nuclear weapons tests in Nevada and elsewhere," according to a March report in the Las Vegas Review Journal.
Major accidents in the nuclear industry have been rare, but the potential for devastating effects have been proven. In 1986, operator error caused two explosions at the Chernobyl No. 4 nuclear power plant in the former Soviet Union. The reactor had an inadequate containment building, and large amounts of radiation escaped, exposing hundreds of thousands of people to dangerously high levels of radiation.
In March 1979 the worst accident in U.S. commercial reactor history occurred at the Three Mile Island nuclear power station near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The accident was caused by a loss of coolant from the reactor core due to a combination of mechanical malfunction and human error.
Later in the year, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission imposed stricter reactor safety regulations and more rigid inspection procedures to improve the safety of reactor operations. In 1980 the Department of Energy initiated the Three Mile Island research and development program to develop technology for disassembling and de-fueling the damaged reactor.
The program continued for 10 years and made significant advances in developing new nuclear safety technology.
A VIABLE SOURCE OF ENERGY
As the Cold War arms race focused scientific attention on the martial uses of nuclear material, potential benefits of nuclear energy produced for civilian use were also realized. On July 17, 1955, Arco, Idaho, population 1,000, became the first town powered by a nuclear power plant.
In July 1957, the first power from a civilian nuclear unit was generated by the Sodium Reactor Experiment at Santa Susana, California. The unit provided power until 1966.
By 1971 twenty-two commercial nuclear power plants were in full operation in the United States.
By 1991, some 111 nuclear power plants operated in the United States with a combined capacity of 99,673 megawatts. They produced almost 22 percent of the commercially generated electricity.
DEALING WITH NUCLEAR WASTE
While the benefits of manipulating nuclear material to produce weapons and energy has been debated, the government has grappled for a half century to find a solution to the problem of nuclear waste -- the byproduct of energy plants and weapons systems.
In 1983, the Nuclear Waste Policy Act established a program to study potential sites nationwide that might serve as a repository for the disposal of high-level radioactive waste, including spent fuel from nuclear power plants.
In December 1987, the act was amended and Congress directed the Department of Energy to study only the potential of the Yucca Mountain, Nevada site for disposal of high-level radioactive waste. At the same time, the Department of Energy began examining whether to create a large "temporary" storage site for nuclear waste.
The department actively encouraged communities and Native American tribes to apply for Department of Energy grants to further study hosting such a facility.
In the 1990s, however, the Department of Energy's temporary nuclear waste storage facility search was shut down, even though dozens of communities and Native American tribes had applied for study grants.
In 1993 the Skull Valley Band of the Goshute Indian tribe considered itself very close to signing an agreement with DOE to host such a facility, only to have the program terminated.
Between 1994 and 1995, nuclear power utilities began forming associations to consider creating a privately owned nuclear waste storage site. Negotiations were initiated with the Mescalero Apache tribe of New Mexico, and the Skull Valley Band of Goshutes in Utah.
By 1995, the Skull Valley Band of Goshutes remained the only actively-negotiating Native American tribe interested in hosting a nuclear waste storage site.
In 1997 the Skull Valley Band of Goshute Indians signed a lease with Private Fuel Storage, L.L.C. to temporarily store 40,000 tons of nuclear waste on tribal lands for up to 40 years.
On Oct. 6, the Salt Lake Tribune reported that the fight over the licensing of the Skull Valley site is coming to an end while both sides continue to fight vigorously:
"By Dec. 5, the federal Atomic Safety and Licensing Board expects to recommend whether the storage facility should be licensed. The board's legal and technical advice will help the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission make a final decision," the newspaper reported. "With the [Nuclear Regulatory Commission]'s OK, a $ 3.1 billion waste-parking pad would be licensed for up to 40 years to hold all the waste U.S. commercial reactors have produced so far, up to 44,000 tons. Utah lawmakers have tried to help. They passed a package of laws intended to block the facility, but a federal court largely struck down Utah's case last month. The state is appealing."
The ramifications of the nuclear waste question cut across traditional party lines and political loyalties. By some accounts, Utah leaders dropped their original opposition to Yucca Mountain when they realized that if the facility weren't completed soon the Skull Valley site would be the only viable alternative.
State legislators in the affected areas are also split. Some have said that the necessity of nuclear storage facilities makes their designation inevitable and so state governments shouldn't seek to block the opening and operation of such sites, but to obtain as much compensation as possible from the federal government in the event that a site opens nearby.
Both private opposition groups and state governments that have passed laws aimed at disrupting or stopping waste storage facility development face costly court battles. Meanwhile, the issue of what to do with nuclear waste promises to be a major concern for voters and politicians for years to come.
--from KUED Salt Lake City and the Online NewsHour
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