Guy W. Farmer: Japan's nuclear disaster and Yucca Mountain

My friend and fellow columnist Ty Cobb Sr. seems to think that the Japanese nuclear disaster makes the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump inevitable. I beg to differ, however, because I think the Japanese crisis sounds the final death knell for Yucca Mountain.

"Despite strenuous efforts by Nevada's congressional delegation and the Obama administration, the Yucca repository will soon be reopened," Cobb wrote in a recent Appeal column, but I think he's dead wrong. If anything, the potential meltdown at Japan's Fukushima nuclear power plant is a huge blow to nuclear power advocates with public confidence in atomic energy at an all-time low. As CNN reported last week, "The ongoing drama at the Fukushima power plant ... has erased the momentum the nuclear energy industry has seen in recent years."

CNN called it "the nuclear renaissance that wasn't" while the respected Christian Science Monitor urged the Obama administration to plan for the safe storage of spent nuclear fuel and to adopt emergency backup plans to guard against a Japan-type accident. And President Obama has directed the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to comprehensively review nuclear plant safety in the U.S.

Obama, Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) delivered a crippling blow to Yucca Mountain last month when they cut off funding for the all-but-moribund project. And despite Republican efforts to revive the project, Reid announced last week that a "rider" barring the NRC from completing the closeout of Yucca Mountain was knocked out of a stop-gap spending measure approved by Congress.

Those GOP efforts don't include Gov. Brian Sandoval and Northern Nevada Congressman Dean Heller, both of whom oppose the highly toxic project. I congratulate them for holding the line against fellow Republicans who think changing the proposed dump's name to "Nevada Energy Park" will make it more palatable to Nevadans. That's just wishful thinking.

In recent weeks the Appeal has published a literate and enlightening debate between Cobb and former Gov. and Sen. Richard Bryan, who chairs the Nevada Nuclear Projects Commission. Cobb opened the debate by arguing that "a combination of legal actions and the Japanese tsunami" will force the Obama administration to reopen Yucca Mountain. But last Tuesday Bryan called Cobb's thesis "entirely wrong and misleading."

"There could be 100 Yucca Mountains up and operating, and the risks involved with spent fuel pools at reactor sites would still be there," Bryan wrote, urging nuclear energy companies to opt for so-called "dry storage" of spent fuel at locations where the waste is generated, none of which is in Nevada. He added that "dry storage virtually eliminates risks of the type we're seeing in Japan," and concluded as follows:

"Instead of disingenuously using the disaster in Japan to stampede Congress into restarting the failed Yucca project, the nuclear industry should be using its considerable influence to require utility companies to make maximum use of dry storage technologies." Amen!

• Guy W. Farmer, of Carson City, is a longtime opponent of the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump.


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