The Next Keystone

Now that the GOP has taken the pipeline fight as far as it can, where to next? Nevada.

Yucca Mountain

Republicans want to transport vast amounts of radioactive waste from nuclear power plants across the nation for burial under Nevada’s Yucca Mountain, where it will take thousands of years to decay.

David McNew/Getty Images

Next week, Republicans will finally be ready to send their Keystone XL bill to President Obama, who has promised to veto it on procedural grounds without a second thought. That won’t end the partisan bickering over the pipeline, which has been raging for the past six years and counting, but it will largely freeze the fight in place. The GOP lacks the votes it needs for an override, and the State Department is refusing to say when it will make a final recommendation on the project, which is what the president says he’s waiting on. Republicans, then, will have done all they can—and Obama all he has to.

But with the Keystone fight losing steam, another high-profile energy battle is bubbling back up: the decades-old debate over Nevada’s Yucca Mountain, the proposed site of a massive federal repository for America’s nuclear waste. The project, which dates back to the Reagan administration, has long been a top priority for the nuclear industry and its Republican allies, but it was more or less left for dead after the 2008 election. Obama promised on the campaign trail that he would block the project and, with the help of then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, the president effectively did just that shortly after he took office.

Now that Republicans control both chambers of Congress, however, Yucca appears destined to return to the national stage. Industry officials have said that GOP leaders assured them privately that jump-starting Yucca is one of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s top priorities for this year. And, Rep. John Shimkus, the Illinois Republican who chairs that panel’s Environment and Economy Subcommittee, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal last month that he is working on just such a bill that he hopes the House will then vote on this summer. Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and James Inhofe of Oklahoma, both of whom lead key energy-themed committees in the upper chamber, have also suggested nuclear waste is on their agendas.

Republicans and Democrats are sure to clash on a whole host of energy issues in a post-Keystone world, but a singular project like Yucca seems poised to draw the type of attention that made Keystone a polarizing staple of stump speeches, fundraising pitches, and attack ads during the past two elections.

The two projects are, of course, vastly different. One is a 1,700-mile pipeline that would move tar sands oil from Canada to the Gulf Coast, the other amounts to a high-tech underground garbage dump that would house 77,000 tons of spent nuclear reactor fuel, as well as the detritus that remains from the nation’s bomb-building binge during the Cold War. Politically speaking, though, the two projects share more than enough in common for the fight over Yucca to pretty seamlessly pick up where the fight over Keystone left off. Both are individual projects that have become de facto litmus tests in the larger fight over the nation’s energy future. Support and opposition both fall largely—but not completely—along party lines. And, most important of all given the existing tensions in the nation’s capital, both have been wrapped in bureaucratic red tape by a White House that would prefer to block each project on procedural grounds than on their merits alone.

Yucca Mountain.
The final resting place?

© STR New / Reuters

The long-stalled Yucca project began to inch forward again in 2013 when a federal appeals court forced the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to restart the process of evaluating whether the site could safely serve as the nation’s nuclear dump, and rebuked the panel for “flouting the law” for abandoning its review in 2010. (Then-NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko—a former Reid aide whom Obama appointed to lead the panel—cited a lack of federal funding as the reason the panel pulled the plug on the evaluation. In reality, while Jaczko’s old Senate boss had managed to cut future funding for Yucca, the commission still had $11 million left to spend.)

The panel has now finished that long-delayed review, releasing the final two volumes of the five-part safety evaluation late last month. The NRC report—not unlike the State Department’s preliminary evaluation of Keystone—has proved to be a Rorschach test inside the Beltway, with both sides seeing only what they want. Supporters tout the fact that the panel concluded the design would be capable of safely isolating the high-level radioactive waste for 1 million years as required. (And here I’ll pause briefly to channel my former colleague Timothy Noah when I shout in disbelief: One million years is a long time!) Critics, meanwhile, point to another important finding, one that has more to do with the practicality of building Yucca than with its theoretical performance: that the project can’t proceed without the government acquiring crucial land and water rights, something that appears all but impossible given Nevada’s steadfast opposition to the project.

The gridlock, meanwhile, is proving costly. Right now, our nuclear waste is spread out among 70-odd commercial nuclear power plants around the country. Burying the waste deep underground—whether in the Nevada desert or somewhere else—is currently considered the nation’s best bet for permanent (or, more accurately, permanent-as-possible) disposal. The Energy Department has been collecting tens of billions of dollars in fees from reactor owners since the 1980s with the promise of taking the spent reactor fuel off their hands. But without Yucca or an alternative in place—or even in the works—courts have assessed billions of dollars in damages against the government for failing to live up to its end of the deal. According to the New York Times, the Energy Department’s potential liability is now upward of $20 billion.

The Yucca stalemate also serves as a proxy for the larger debate over what role nuclear power will play in America’s energy future. The GOP—which it should be noted isn’t ready to admit man is a cause of climate change—has called nuclear power “the most reliable zero-carbon-emissions source of energy that we have.” The climate crowd has a more complicated relationship with nuclear. James Hansen and several other leading climate scientists see it as essential in the fight against global warming, while others in the field point to the long-term unknowns and the shorter-term carbon costs involved in the mining and transportation of uranium, and the construction and operation of reactors. Heavyweight environmental groups like Greenpeace and the Sierra Club, meanwhile, are steadfast in their opposition, arguing that nuclear is too expensive, dangerous, and time-consuming to be worth the effort.

For his part, Obama has paid lip service to nuclear power but has done little to spur the nuclear renaissance the industry was dreaming of a decade ago. In his latest budget, the president proposes creating an interim storage site for the nuclear waste at a cost of $5.7 billion over the next decade. In the past, Yucca proponents have fought similar plans, fearing that short-term consolidation would weaken the case for long-term action.

The NRC’s final safety evaluation, meanwhile, begins to clear the way for the panel to begin holding licensing hearings, which officials have suggested could take three years or more once they finally kick off. Given that, don’t be surprised if the Yucca fight that starts in Congress later this year sticks around through the next election and beyond—just like Keystone before it.