The debate is heating up over whether the country should keep its spent nuclear fuel in Nevada.
President Trump has proposed funding to restart the licensing process and the house energy committee will hear the matter next week on Capitol Hill.
And while most of Nevada’s federal delegation and Governor Brian Sandoval are adamantly against the Yucca Mountain project, its host county has a different take.
Nye County is officially “neutral” on it but its county commission chair says if the science continues to prove it’s a safe facility, they’re all for it.
The small city of Pahrump is the epicenter of local efforts to re-start the permitting process for the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository.
Pahrump sits about 50 miles southeast of the site and is home to what’s left of the information offices about the repository project.
“This is exactly what a spent fuel assembly looks like,” Dr. Michael Voegele, former senior nuclear scientist, Yucca Mountain project.
Doctor Voegele was a senior scientist at the Yucca Mountain project who has been serving as an advisor to Nye County since retiring several years ago.
He says years of work since the project was authorized in 1987 prove the site will safely store spent nuclear fuel.
“So, we’re talking about in the desert, with very little precipitation falling on top of the mountain, having to work its way down through 1,000 feet of rock, and then dissolve some stainless steel and some ceramics, and then pick up any radionuclides and move a thousand feet down into the water table,” Voegele said.
“The county’s official position has been the same for years, it is that we want to hear the science,” said Nye County Commission Chairman Dan Schinhofen.
He has led the charge of nine rural counties urging the federal government to re-start the permitting process at Yucca Mountain.
The stalled project — he contends — cost the county jobs and federal funds for oversight and for hosting the repository.
“We lost 2,500 jobs, we lost money that was coming to Nye County to continue to do water sampling and well drilling, other safety issues with yucca mountain,” Schinhofen said.
At its peak, Nye County received more than $11 million in 2007 along with another nearly $3 million per year to conduct independent scientific reviews of the project.
It’s progress Schinhofen says is being blocked by the state.
“It gets frustrating, you know, as an elected official, we need all the facts before we make a decision, and for the state to continue to stick their fingers in their ears and say ‘no,’ puzzles me,” he said.
Both Schinhofen and Voegele reject the notion that toxic sludge will be coming through the Las Vegas valley.
“We’re talking about steels and ceramics,” said Voegele. “Solid materials for the spent nuclear fuel, and for the defense high-level waste, that would be glass.”
There are two ways that the spent nuclear fuel would come into Yucca Mountain, one of them would be on the back of a trailer, which would go on the roads. The more efficient way would be on a train car. The proposed route for that is coming out of the north, completely skirting the Las Vegas valley.
With all of the infrastructure that has yet to be built and several years of review during the permitting process, spent nuclear fuel is still a long way from coming to Nevada.
But as the law stands now, it will eventually be stored in Yucca Mountain and it’s not likely that will change in the near future.
“If you don’t like the law, change it, they haven’t changed it in 35 years,” Schinhofen said.
Nye County also wants the permitting process to continue to show Las Vegas would not be in danger. They say the science shows if any groundwater ever became contaminated, it would have to flow uphill, over the Spring Mountains to get to the Las Vegas valley.