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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Waste Not....Here

Air Date: Week of

Yucca Mountain, Nevada (Courtesy of The Whitehouse)

Plans to store radioactive nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain, Nevada have been postponed again due to budget cuts and opposition. Host Bruce Gellerman turns to Lisa Mascaro, Washington correspondent for the Las Vegas Sun.


GELLERMAN: Since the 1980’s the United States has been committed to building a nuclear waste repository 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas at Yucca Mountain. The site was designed to deal with high level radioactive waste from the nation’s atomic power plants.

Yet two decades and $9 billion later, there’s a test tunnel leading a thousand feet deep into the barren basalt wasteland—but no nuclear waste. Most Nevada residents oppose the Yucca project—and in a recent debate, the top democratic presidential candidates sought their support.

GELLERMAN: Well, at long last, there may be light at the end of the Yucca Mountain debate. Joining me is Lisa Mascaro, Washington correspondent for the Las Vegas Sun. Hi, Lisa.

MASCARO: Hi, Bruce. Thanks for having me.

GELLERMAN: This is the never-say-die project, but it seems that the Department of Energy officials who are in charge of Yucca Mountain are about to miss an important deadline, right?

Beneath Yucca Mountain in a 47-meter-long tunnel, researchers have placed electrical heaters inside containers resembling those intended to hold high-level nuclear wastes. Numerous instruments monitor the effect of heat on the surrounding rock. Tests like these will help determine the consequences of storing nuclear waste in tunnels inside Yucca Mountain. (Courtesy of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory)

MASCARO: Yes, that’s right. The Energy Department announced this week that its June 2008 deadline for the next step of the project, which is to submit this application to license the project—they may not be able to meet that deadline now because of some of these steep budget cuts that were engineered by Congress at the end of last year.

GELLERMAN: Well it was your Senator, Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid, who did cut deep into this budget.

MASCARO: Absolutely. The Nevada delegation—and really the whole state of Nevada—from the government structure and a vast majority of the population of Nevada, polls show us—are opposed to this project and have been opposed to it. And the Nevada delegation here in Washington has fought for years trying to whittle away, they say—the buzzword is sort of to starve the project of its needed funds. Well, now that Senator Harry Reid is the majority leader, he has been able to engineer one of the largest budget cuts ever to the project.

GELLERMAN: Well, they’ve laid off a lot of workers and they put it on a caretaker status, basically.

Yucca Mountain, Nevada (Courtesy of The Whitehouse)

MASCARO: Yeah, there was a real symbolic move these past several weeks. The contractor out there at the site basically closed up the tunnel to the site by erecting a chain link fence across it and laid off 60-something workers out at the site. The Energy Department has now announced this week that further lay offs—as many as 500 lay offs to a workforce of about 2700 on the Yucca Mountain project may have to be let go because of this budget cut.

GELLERMAN: Well the Democrats are all saying ‘no way, Jose.’ What are the Republicans saying?

MASCARO: Yeah, there are—you’re absolutely right. The Democrats have come out so strong against this project, some even going so far as to say that they will be sure to kill it if they are to take office. The Republicans have been more mixed and you’ve definitely heard some of the candidates saying that the nation needs a place to put the nuclear waste and this is the place that was decided on years ago and we need to go forward with this project.

GELLERMAN: Well what happens if they really do shut down Yucca? Where does the waste go?

MASCARO: Right, Bruce. Well that’s an interesting debate and one that’s been going on for some time. There is a school of thought that says that you can store the waste exactly where it is. It can stay put at the energy producing sites across the nation. And it’s something that Senator Reid and the Nevada delegation has pushed to continue doing just that.

GELLERMAN: Lisa Mascaro is Washington correspondent with the Las Vegas Sun. Lisa, thanks a lot.

MASCARO: Thanks for having me.



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