Academic Environmental Studies
Environmental Studies

The Yucca Mountain Nuclear Controversy


How can policymakers avoid a repeat of the Yucca Mountain debacle? In this section, I argue that the opposition discussed above stems from Congress’s decision to ram Yucca Mountain through in the 1987 “Screw Nevada Bill.” I show that the 1987 bill tore apart the useful framework established by the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act and established in its place a process that was certain to provoke opposition. The 1987 bill, I argue, stripped away the scientific legitimacy of the project, forced the DOE to pursue Yucca Mountain regardless of its own misgivings, and made Nevadans feel disenfranchised.

The 1982 NWPA, I believe, provided a deliberate and thorough framework for siting the federal nuclear waste repository, one that might have allowed the government to establish such a repository by this time. Under the NWPA, the DOE would evaluate several potential sites over the course of several years. The DOE would then submit a recommendation to the President, who would make a choice. The choice was subject to veto by the governor or state legislature of the relevant state, or even by a tribal council if the repository site was on Native American land. Finally, even after the President made a choice, the NWPA required the DOE to immediately stop site development and return to the site selection process if it ever discovered a “disqualifying factor” at the chosen site. Overall, the bill was a model of deliberate inquiry.

The 1987 “Screw Nevada Bill” overrode this process and set the stage for two decades of controversy. This legislation declared Yucca Mountain the only acceptable site for a nuclear repository, and ordered the DOE to immediately begin working on a repository there. This damaged the prospects for a nuclear repository in three ways:

  • The bill stripped away the scientific legitimacy of the project in sidestepping the thorough process mandated by the NWPA. From the very start, Nevadans believed that politics played more of a role than science in the choice of Yucca Mountain, and this belief ultimately made them far more rigid in their opposition.

  • The bill took away the DOE’s flexibility. The original NWPA implicitly gave the DOE the option of backing up and choosing another site if something turned out awry with its first choice. The DOE had no such option with the 1987 bill, and so was forced to plow ahead with Yucca Mountain at all costs. As a result, the DOE ignored the complaints of Nevadans, further provoking their opposition.

  • The bill disenfranchised the people of Nevada, leading to greater opposition. Nominally, the bill kept in place the veto power granted to state and tribal government by the NWPA. In reality, by eliminating the DOE’s flexibility, the bill ensured that the federal government would override any such veto, as did in fact happen when the governor of Nevada vetoed the choice of Yucca Mountain.

These changes ultimately doomed the Yucca Mountain project. However, the failures of the 1987 bill serve to highlight the strengths of the original NWPA. The framework outlined in that legislation provided a good roadmap for the site selection process.

If President Obama hopes to inaugurate a nuclear renaissance in America, then, I suggest he look to the NWPA as a guide. A bill based on the NWPA, left unimpeded, could guide the nation to the creation of a repository with legitimacy in the eyes of the public. It would give the site selection process the veneer of scientific credibility it must have, and would ensure that ordinary people felt as though they had a voice in the debate. The Obama Administration’s major obstacle—and it is a big one—would be to ensure that lobbyists did not water down the process to the point of irrelevancy, as they did in 1987. If this obstacle can be surmounted, I believe we can envision a nuclear waste repository moving forward in this country in the next several decades.

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