Feb 18, 2020

Analysis | The Energy 202: No 2020 Democrat wants to store nuclear waste under Nevada's Yucca Mountain

By Dino Grandoni


People leave the south portal of Yucca Mountain during a congressional tour near Mercury, Nev. (AP Photo/John Locher, File)
There has been a lot of head-butting in Nevada over unions, health care and civility in politics ahead of the Democratic caucuses on Saturday.
But the White House hopefuls vying for votes in the early caucus state have shown a rare bit of unity over what may be the biggest energy and environmental issue in Nevada.
Every major candidate for president has joined Nevada's crusade to stop the completion of a long-delayed nuclear waste storage site under Yucca Mountain some 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
The nation's ever-growing pile of radioactive waste from years of building nuclear weapons and producing electricity at nuclear power plants needs to be sequestered permanently somewhere. But, according to the Democratic candidates, just not at the spot in the rural highlands of Nevada that Congress designated three decades ago.
The issue has become a crucial box to check for Democrats in the state, which has only gotten increasingly left-leaning and important to the national fortunes of the Democratic Party with each presidential election cycle.
“It's not a surprise that no one would support Yucca” said Rodney Ewing, a professor of nuclear security and geological sciences at Stanford University.
The candidates, though, largely still don't have an answer to the question of where to put the nation's over 90,000 tons of nuclear waste, if not under Yucca.
The three senators still fighting for the nomination — Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar — each backed a bill last year that would bar the federal government from moving the waste into Nevada without permission from the governor. The Sanders campaign featured Yucca in its first campaign video in Nevada in May.
Trump is proposing to send our nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain. That would be a disaster. We must stop building new nuclear power plants, and find a real solution to our existing nuclear waste problem. pic.twitter.com/O6iO0q1Z2B
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) May 16, 2019
The two billionaires funding their own campaigns, Mike Bloomberg and Tom Steyer, also oppose using Yucca as a dumping ground for nuclear waste without the state's consent.
Joe Biden, noting his opposition to the Yucca project during his time as senator and vice president, said in a statement "there would be absolutely zero dumping of nuclear waste in Nevada.”
And the campaign of Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., said he wants to ensure Nevadans “have a voice in choosing storage sites.”
“If Nevadans oppose storing waste at Yucca Mountain,” Buttigieg spokesman Chris Meagher added in a statement, “Pete’s administration will not support it.”
The one, lonely supporter of the project in the Democratic field, Andrew Yang, just dropped out of the race last week.
Nevadans who balk at burying waste in their own backyard — and outsiders who want to be in their good graces — argue the mountain's rock is too porous and the area is too volcanic and earthquake-prone to suit such long-term storage.
Yet without a place to permanently store it, the highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel has been left to linger at sites scattered across 35 states. It can't stay in those spots forever. Some of the waste remains dangerous for hundreds of thousands of years.
And there's the rub: No Democrat has named another specific spot to permanently put the waste.
The campaign of former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg wants to bring together nuclear scientists, geologists and other experts "to find alternatives for long-term storage of spent nuclear fuel." Biden wants to establish a new agency to incubate technology startups and other projects that look into the issue of nuclear waste storage. And Warren has proposed studying how to safely and cheaply store waste as part of a $400 billion clean energy program.
The opposition to Yucca among Democratic White House hopefuls is nothing new. "The Democratic position starts at 'no" and goes to 'hell no'" on the Yucca repository, said Erik Herzik, a political science professor at the University of Nevada at Reno. Republicans tend to be more supportive of the project.
The issue isn't always a dealbreaker for presidential candidates. George W. Bush, who wanted to put the waste at the Nevada site, won the state in 2000 and 2004 against Al Gore and John Kerry, both of whom opposed the project.
Congress first approved of using Yucca as a nuclear waste repository back in the 1980s, but Nevada lawmakers — most notably former Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) — made careers out of stalling the project. Ever since then, the fate of the project has pinballed from administration to administration, with Bush in support and Barack Obama in opposition to entombing the waste in Nevada.
“This issue just will not die,” Herzik said.
After years of his administration throwing its weight behind the Yucca project, President Trump himself just switched positions, too. In a single tweet this month, Trump said he no longer wants to put the waste in Nevada. Trump lost the state to Hillary Clinton four years ago by only a 2.4-point margin.
Those wild swings between presidential administrations mean the problem needs a different sort of solution, according to Ewing, the Stanford professor. He led a 2018 study that recommended moving responsibility for disposing of the nuclear to an independent not-for-profit corporation.
Ewing, that is, says we need “to remove the federal government" from the job.
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The John E. Amos coal-fired power plant in Winfield, W. Va., was retrofitted to comply with a rule on mercury enacted under President Barack Obama. (Stacy Kranitz for The Washington Post)

— Thanks, but no thanks: The nation’s power generation sector has pushed back against the Trump administration’s effort to change a rule cutting emissions of mercury and other toxins. It’s a slight departure from the usual course of business, where the Trump administration has had industry support for easing burdensome environmental regulations, The Post’s Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis report.
  • Not this time: Exelon, a top utility, told the EPA the latest rollback is an “action that is entirely unnecessary, unreasonable, and universally opposed by the power generation sector.” Kathy Robertson, a senior manager for environmental policy at Exelon, told The Post the rule works. “The sector has gotten so much cleaner as a result of this rule,” she said.
  • Who else is against the plan?: Unions, business groups and electric utilities. Still, the EPA is preparing to finalize its proposal. It plans to declare that it’s not “appropriate and necessary” for the federal government to place a limit on pollutants from power plants.
— “We can save Earth”: The world's richest man, Jeff Bezos, announced the creation of a new $10 billion fund toward tackling climate change. The funding is meant to provide grants to scientists, activists and NGOs and “builds off prior commitments that Bezos has made in recent years to reduce Amazon’s impact on the environment, including signing a ‘climate pledge’ last year that commits the company to operate on 100 percent renewable electricity by 2030,” The Post’s Kimberly Kindy reports. Bezos, who founded the online retail giant Amazon and also owns The Washington Post, said grants will be doled out this summer.
  • Activists at Amazon cautiously optimistic: Members of Amazon Employees for Climate Justice — a group of workers concerned about Amazon’s ties with oil and gas companies as well as its environmental footprint — responded by saying they “applaud Jeff Bezos’ philanthropy, but one hand cannot give what the other is taking away.” “The people of Earth need to know: When is Amazon going to stop helping oil & gas companies ravage Earth with still more oil and gas wells?,” the group asked as part of a series of tweets responding to the news.
  • The caveats: The announcement, posted on Bezos’s Instagram, does not include details such as when and in what way scientists and activists can apply for grants.

Mandy Gunasekara had left the EPA a year ago to start what she called a “pro-Trump nonprofit” group in her home state of Mississippi. (Courtesy of Mandy Gunasekara)

— One of the EPA's first Trump appointees poised for a comeback: Mandy Gunasekara, who pushed Trump to withdraw from the Paris climate accord, is set to return to the EPA as its next chief of staff, Eilperin and Dennis report. Gunasekara was previously the EPA’s top air policy adviser, and left the agency a year ago to start a “pro-Trump nonprofit” in Mississippi.
  • Her background: “After joining the EPA in March 2017, Gunasekara oversaw the agency’s Office of Air and Radiation on an acting basis for nearly eight months under then-Administrator Scott Pruitt. Trained as a lawyer, she played a key role in working to scale back federal rules aimed at cutting greenhouse gas emissions and other forms of pollution, including replacing the Obama-era Clean Power Plan and federal gas-mileage standards.”
  • You may also remember: Gunasekara also worked for Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), who has been a vocal critic of climate change regulations. In 2015, Gunasekara handed Inhofe a snowball on the Senate floor so he could mock global warming.
The United States is fighting for sovereignty and freedom. We should have confidence in the transatlantic alliance. The free West has a brighter future than illiberal alternatives. #TheWestIsWinning – and we’re doing it together. pic.twitter.com/3sz9PoSNZC
— Secretary Pompeo (@SecPompeo) February 15, 2020
— A pledge from Pompeo: Speaking at the Munich Security Conference, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the United States would dole out $1 billion to help European allies move toward energy independence.
  • What he said: “As a brand new statement today of our support for sovereignty, prosperity, and energy independence of our European friends, today I want to announce that through the International Development Finance Corporation, and with the support of our United States Congress, we intend to provide up to $1 billion in financing to Central and Eastern European countries of the Three Seas Initiative,” Pompeo announced, according to the Hill.

Water surges from the reservoir dam as the Pearl River continues to rise in Brandon, Miss. (Cam Bonelli/Hattiesburg American/AP)
— Officials bracing for devastating floods in Mississippi: Days of heavy rainfall already fueled flooding across Jackson and surrounding areas. On Saturday, Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves (R) declared a state of emergency and at a Sunday news conference he warned not to let a brief reprieve from stormy skies “lull you into a false sense of hope,” NPR reports. “This is a precarious situation that can turn at any moment,” Reeves said. “It will be days before we're out of the woods and the water starts to recede.”
  • By the numbers: Reeves said 1,000 homes and 3,000 people are expected to be hit by flooding. Officials had distributed 146,000 sandbags throughout central Mississippi. “The expected inundation could be the worst flooding in Jackson since 1983, when the Pearl River rose to 39.58 feet. The all-time record was set in 1979, which saw the river crest at 43.28 feet, according to the National Weather Service.” 

A man stands on the rubble of his home in the Haitian Quarter, after the passing of Hurricane Dorian in Abaco, Bahamas. (Ramon Espinosa/AP)
— How Dorian affected reefs: Hurricane Dorian, which devastated the northwest Bahamas at the early end of its two-week trail of destruction, ruined about 30 percent of the coral reefs around the islands, the New York Times reports. A report from the Perry Institute for Marine Science found reef structures — some already at risk — were dislodged or buried. The storm also brought rainwater that altered sea salinity and changed water temperature, possibly shocking coral reefs.
  • Now what?: “Some of the fragmented corals could be regrown in nurseries and then reattached to dead pieces to replenish them. But that would take time, as some species take many years to grow.”

A flooded street in Tenbury Wells, in western England, after the River Teme burst its banks Sunday. (Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images)
— Historic bomb cyclone churns thorough U.K.: It’s the second-strongest nontropical storm ever recorded in the North Atlantic Ocean. Storm Dennis has produced up to 80-foot waves, poured more than five inches of rain in South Wales and fueled widespread flooding across parts of the United Kingdom, The Post’s Andrew Freedman reports.
  • It also waylaid a youth climate strikers conference: The youth activists’ first-ever national conference was canceled because of the extreme weather. "There's a bleak irony in our being beaten back by climate change," a 15-year-old from London said in a statement released by the U.K. Student Climate Network, per CBS News.

Plastic bottles of water are seen for sale at a store in San Francisco. (Eric Risberg/AP)
— States want bottling firms to stop tapping local groundwater: The state of Washington could become the first in the country to stop water-bottling companies from extracting from spring-fed sources, Alex Brown reports for The Post. Activists say such companies are depleting springs and aquifers.
  • Efforts elsewhere: “Elsewhere, lawmakers in Michigan and Maine also have filed bills to restrict the bottling of groundwater or tax the industry,” Brown writes. “Local ballot measures have passed in Oregon and Montana to restrict the industry, although the zoning change in Montana’s Flathead County remains tied up in court.”

Pacific Gas & Electric crews work on restoring power lines in a fire-ravaged neighborhood in an aerial view in the aftermath of a wildfire in Santa Rosa, Calif. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)
— No guarantee California takeover of PG&E would solve problems: That’s what the Los Angeles Times explores in this deep look at the ideas behind and the implications of public ownership of the power grid. 
  • What some are calling for: “Nobody has ever transferred a utility as large as PG&E from private to public ownership. But a growing number of state and local lawmakers are calling for a public takeover of the sprawling company, which serves as the power provider for 16 million people across a vast territory stretching from Redding in the north to Santa Barbara County in the south,” per the L.A. Times.
  • What to know: PG&E would fight the takeover. Some organized labor groups are skeptical, fearing members’ pensions would be negatively affected by the transfer. Customers served by Trinity Public Utilities District, which serves as a precedent for public takeover in Trinity County, pay half as much as PG&E customers, but the utility still faces lawsuits and millions in claims over a wildfire. “Although the potential benefits are significant, there’s no guarantee a government entity could provide safer, cleaner or cheaper electricity than the reviled company it replaces,” the L.A. Times writes.

Costa Constantinides, a progressive candidate for Queens borough president, is prioritizing climate issues in his platform.

The two sprawling metro areas — one rich, one poor — offer a vision of what could be a watery future for 600 million coastal residents worldwide.
New York Times

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