The Yucca Mountain Nuclear Controversy
“Yucca Mountain as a repository is off the table.”7 President Obama’s Secretary of Energy, Steven Chu, said this in 2009, and the Obama Administration followed through when the DOE withdrew its application for a construction license in March 2010. What, finally, brought Yucca Mountain to an end? “We realize that we know a lot more today than we did 25 or 30 years ago,” according to Chu. The Secretary acknowledged a reality the government had denied for decades: the science was not on its side.
The government did not arrive at this conclusion on its own. Left to itself, the DOE would almost certainly have continued pushing forward with Yucca Mountain; the misgivings of its researchers were no match for bureaucratic inertia. It took the efforts of the environmental movement, in conjunction with Nevadan politicians, to see what was going on. In the words of Governor Guinn, “We have watched politics trump science over and over again.”11 This politics-over-science framework proved to be the correct way in which to view the government’s work at Yucca Mountain, and turned out to be a powerful rhetorical device, as well.
The waste issue is rising up once again, as Secretary Chu and President Obama speak of reviving the moribund nuclear industry. They will meet with little success unless they figure out how to address this problem. Fortunately, there is already legislation in place which they can build upon as they move forward: the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act. The NWPA provides a working template for how to conduct a site selection process in a way that ensures scientific credibility, maintains flexibility, and gives voice to those affected. If the Obama Administration wants to revive the nuclear industry, legislation based on the NWPA is the best way forward.